A small, troubling example of the effect political bias has on journalism
Reading the latest copy of the New Yorker magazine, published exactly a week ago, I came across this sentence in a piece by Jill Lepore:
This in a 5,000 word feature on the history of policing in the United States, which draws a link between the early role of police in suppressing slave rebellions, and police killings of Black Americans in the twenty first century.
This sentence jumped out to me. How could it possibly be true that ‘two-thirds’ of all Americans aged 15-34 visiting emergency rooms had been injured by police or security guards, given the very many other reasons why people might present for emergency treatment? In the online version, there is no hyperlink to the research (although the article does contain hyperlinks), and the study’s authors are not named.
Jill Lepore could hardly be more eminent. She is a professor of American history at Harvard, the recipient of a long list of awards, and a longstanding staff writer at the New Yorker, as well as a contributor at many other well regarded publications. I love her writing, so much so that I bought several extra copies of her latest book These Truths to give as presents to friends and family. Given this, I thought at first that I might have misunderstood the sentence, and tweeted as much.
I sought out the study she was referring to, and found it: a 2016 paper, whose lead author, Justin Feldman, was a doctoral student at Harvard at the time. Soon after publication, the findings were described in a Harvard press release, and also reported on by The Guardian.
And it turns out I was right — the ‘two-thirds’ claim is not true. Not even close.
Lepore is right to draw a comparison between the rate of ‘legal intervention injuries’ (to use Feldman’s phrase) and the rate of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles, although this only applied to men aged 15-34.
But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that:
Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.
Which is to say, they were injured by hitting, rather than some other use of force. But I’m sorry to say that Lepore’s claim is straightforwardly false, as Feldman himself replied when asked by another twitter user: ‘Oh weird, the rate being the same as car accidents is true, but the other part is definitely not.’
I did my best to work out a rough estimate of the true proportion of 15-34 year olds visiting the ER who had suffered legal intervention injuries, and arrived at a figure of 0.2% (you can follow my working in this thread). So I believe Lepore’s claim to be off by a factor of several hundred.
Why does this one sentence matter? Well, firstly, it misinforms readers, several of whom (based on my Twitter search for the article’s URL) also alighted on this claim, but unlike me took it on trust. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it tells us something about the political climate in a publication like the New Yorker, which was once famous for its rigorous fact checking.
We know that political bias warps cognition, sometimes catastrophically, and this is, I think, an example of that in action. Lepore read Feldman’s research and she misunderstood part of it, despite being an exceptionally intelligent person. Like many other Left-leaning Democrats, she is convinced that police brutality is a huge, under-acknowledged problem in the United States, and she therefore jumped to the conclusion that this wildly inflated ‘two-thirds’ figure was plausible.
The staff at the New Yorker who read her piece also, we must assume, considered it to be plausible. The sentence was printed and, as of the time of writing, has not been corrected. There has been no uproar on social media. I reached out to both the New Yorker and Feldman for comment, and have not received replies.
A small, troubling example of the effect of political bias on journalism.