Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Press: Not a Public Enemy, But Still Misleading

DANIEL NESBITT ’22

STAFF WRITER

Is the press the enemy of the people? No. Frankly, it is an idiotic and absurd statement for Trump to make, and I hate when he says it. However, the press is far from perfect. Too often, the media reports misleading statistics or misinterprets scientific studies to increase their stories’ attractiveness.

Take guns, for example. Consistently, the media reports misleading information or statistics with no explanation of methodology. The most ridiculous example of this comes from USA Today. After the church shooting in Texas, it released a video depicting the shooter’s AR-15 and its modifications. The video also depicted other potential attachments to the weapon, including a “chainsaw bayonet.” Yes, that’s right, a chainsaw bayonet. Firstly, that gun owners would attach chainsaw bayonets to their weapons is utterly ludicrous. Second, many gun owners saw this absurd depiction as an attempt to promote negative stereotypes against the gun industry and gun owners to delegitimize or strawman their arguments. Although it is unlikely that this was the intent of USA Today, many gun owners still arrived at this conclusion, furthering their distrust and skepticism of the media.

The media also frequently reports misleading gun violence statistics. Following the tragic events in Parkland, Florida, many news organizations, such as ABC and NBC, reported that there had been 18 school shootings in the first six weeks of 2018. This statistic, from the organization known as Everytown, is extremely misleading. This reported statistic considered a school shooting to be any discharge of a firearm on school grounds, regardless of the context. Of these 18 incidents, nine resulted in no deaths or injuries whatsoever. In addition, there were two suicides and three accidental discharges included. Only three of these incidents were school shootings that involved an individual seeking to end as many lives as possible. That’s not to say that three school shootings are insignificant, not by any means – three school shootings are three too many, and this problem needs to be addressed. By failing to clarify what falls within certain statistical categories, news organizations paint a picture that is factually incorrect. This phenomenon is only amplified with the growing digitalization of the news with  eye-catching, clickbait titles.

Another common misleading firearms statistic involves the number of mass shootings. For example, a September piece by Vox was titled, “There have been 263 days in 2018 – and 262 mass shootings in America.” The article later explains that this statistic defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people were shot or killed, not including the shooter. This does not consider the context of the situation nor the intent of the shooter. This clickbait title leaves viewers with an incorrect view of reality.

Media misinformation is not limited to guns. In fact, media misinformation often comes about through the misinterpretation of scientific studies. One particularly notable instance of this comes from the New York Times (NYT) in its article titled, “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus.” This title fails to capture what the study actually found. Within the report, the authors themselves point out that using this 1 in 4 statistic “as a global rate [is] oversimplistic, if not misleading.” In addition, only 19.3% of students contacted actually partook in the survey, so it is likely a non-representative sample of the student population because non-victims would be less likely to participate. The NYT reported the findings of a non-representative sample of women responding to a non-representative sample of 27 colleges as a universal rule across all colleges in the United States. This is factually incorrect and intellectually dishonest. Let me be clear: In no way am I arguing that sexual assault is not a problem on college campuses. I am only pointing out the misleading nature of this news headline as a result of misinterpreting a scientific study.

An informed citizenry is necessary for American democracy to thrive, however a misinformed citizenry is no better than an uninformed citizenry. News organizations must fix these misinforming practices if they really want to gain back the public’s trust.

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