Hard-Hitting Reporting? Or a Hit-Job?
The New York Times on "Driving while Black"By Nick Selby | Oct 25, 2015
The New York Times recent article “The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black” is either a highly important, 5,700-word indictment of a corrupt and racist police department or it’s an irresponsible and scurrilous accusation against an entire department, plastered on the front page of the nation’s most widely circulated newspaper. So which is it?
The article has a big problem from the start. Since the reporters don’t share or summarize the core data on which their report is based in any meaningful way or provide their methodology, we can’t know for sure until an independent analysis is performed. That, in my opinion, is poor journalism.
Fully 1,533 words after the heading, “Analyzing the Stops,” are the 35 words —a mere .61% of the article —upon which the entire article is based and the only discussion within of the data relevant to the headline charge. Specifically:
“The Times analyzed tens of thousands of traffic stops made by hundreds of officers since 2010. Although blacks made up 39 percent of Greensboro’s driving-age population, they constituted 54 percent of the drivers pulled over.”
To spend only 35 words on the core evidence behind the front-page headline accusation requires readers to pay undue faith in the reporters to get it right.
But objectivity is clearly not their goal. What follows is primarily an emotional, highly anecdotal appeal. In other sections of the article, for example, its reporters spent 263 words discussing racial profiling cases from the 1990s in New Jersey, regulations in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Rhode Island. They spend 252 words discussing regulations in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as 258 words discussing historical racist policies in Greensboro dating to 1960.
Back to the so-called data that justifies their conclusions. Those 35 words are proof of nothing and raise serious questions as to the methodology and scope of the Times’ analysis and the journalists’ understanding of the issues other than race surrounding car stops, including police procedure and demography.
By not listing, showing or graphically visualizing the data, the Times omits utterly crucial context: the location of the stops, the time of day, the residence city and state of the stopped driver. The Times either had to have included these factors in their analysis and determined that the impact was insufficiently compelling as an offset to the accusation. Or they’re wrong in their conclusions.
The reason that this is important is simply this: By comparing the traffic stops only to the population of Greensboro, the journalists presume that the only people driving in Greensboro live in Greensboro. That’s absurd.
As an example, 24.59% of the 155,208 traffic stops made by Philadelphia police in 2013 were of drivers who lived in cities other than Philadelphia, and 8.14% were of drivers from states other than Pennsylvania. This is the nature of policing and traffic enforcement, clear to any rookie observer, let alone to any officer.
To compare, then, the population that lives in any city to the population that drives through that same city, is as simple to do as it is wrong.
The Times’ reporters imply they considered this dynamic. But they don’t give a clue as to whether they possessed or whether or how they considered this aspect of the data.
Instead, they quote Dr. Jack McDevitt, the lead researcher and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, who conducted a totally different and unrelated study on data from other states in the northeast.
“While factors like out-of-town drivers can alter the racial composition of a city’s motorists,” the Times quotes Dr. McDevitt as saying, ““if the difference is that big, it does give you pause.”
For a person, no matter how learned, to say of data he has not examined that “it gives one pause” is truly something. Yet the Times quotes Dr. McDevitt here in a manner that a casual reader might incorrectly infer as Dr. McDevitt’s support of their premise.
It may be. But in my opinion, it’s more likely not. The Times chose to dedicate 35 of its 5,700 words to the data. The rest on editorial, narrative and historical stories of injustice in Greensboro and throughout the United States, which, while perhaps contextually relevant, speak nothing of the vaunted data on which they supposedly found grounds to indict police. Until they release their data and methodology, I remain interested but unconvinced.