Mike Wilson, the editor for The Dallas Morning News, admitted to publishing a Washington Post report with an unvetted statistic on gun violence and used it as a warning about how the press can “misinform the public on guns.”
Wilson sets the context:
Steve Doud, a subscriber from Plano, emailed me to say he’d read something in the June 21 Dallas Morning News that couldn’t possibly be true.
An eight-paragraph Washington Post article on page 10A reported on a national study about kids and guns. The last sentence said 4.2 percent of American kids have witnessed a shooting in the past year.
“Really?” Doud wrote. “Does it really sound believable that one kid out of every 24 has witnessed a shooting in the last year? I think not, unless it was on TV, in a movie, or in a video game. In that case it would probably be more like 100 percent.”
His instincts were right. The statistic was not.
Here is the unfortunate story of how a couple of teams of researchers and a whole bunch of news organizations, including this one, unintentionally but thoroughly misinformed the public.
The misleading statistic was culled from a 2015 University of New Hampshire study led by sociology professor David Finkelhor, which gathered data through phone interviews around the country. The data was put into graphs and published in the study. The table in question was poorly worded ("exposure to shooting") and didn't represent the full scope of the question, which actually included other types of violence.
Now, here’s where it gets even more convoluted. The Washington Post report was based on a Center for Disease Control study conducted with researchers at the University of Texas. The CDC-UT study was published in the Pediatrics journal and focused on the thousands of children shot each year in the United States. But, The Post also included the statistic from Finkelhor’s study without checking into it.
After Wilson received the heads-up from his subscriber, a call to Finkelhor was made:
According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”
So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.
Finkelhor said he understood why “exposure to shooting” might have misled the CDC-UT researchers even though his team provided the underlying question in the appendices. Linda Dahlberg, a CDC violence prevention researcher and co-author of the study featured in The Post and this newspaper, said her team didn’t notice anything indicating the statistic covered other things.
Then again, the Finkelhor study didn’t say anything about kids “witnessing” shootings; that wording was added by the CDC-UT team. Dahlberg said she’ll ask Pediatrics about running a correction.
And that’s exactly how misinformation is spread by the mainstream media, boosted by a federal agency, and believed by a trusting, yet, often gullible, public. Wilson lamented how his paper trusted The Washington Post, which trusted the CDC, and then published bad science which “can affect public opinion and ultimately public policy.”
“The idea that one in 25 kids witnessed a shooting in the past year was reported around the world, and some of the world probably believed it,” he said. “No matter where you stand on guns or any other issue, we ought to be making decisions based on good information.”
The media wants to convince the public that President Trump is wrong and that they don’t peddle fake news, but example after example, including this one and the recent retractions at CNN, is further proof he's right.
At least Wilson fessed up:
Finkelhor’s team caused confusion by mislabeling a complicated stat. The CDC-UT researchers should have found the information suspect. The Washington Post should have asked more questions about that line from the CDC-UT study.
And we should have been as skeptical of the Washington Post report as Steve Doud was.
The Dallas Morning News was founded in 1885 and has historically leaned conservative. But for the 2016 election, the paper endorsed Hillary Clinton, claiming Trump was “not qualified to serve as president. This was “the first time it had endorsed a Democrat for president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940,” according to Wikipedia.