#JOURNALISM: An Untrue Claim in The New Yorker Speaks Volumes.
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. . . .
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.
Think of the press as a psychological warfare operation against normal Americans and you won’t go far wrong.