Tag Archives: new york times

More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data

The New York Times‘ problem of misrepresenting the relationship between phones and traffic fatalities, which seems to have begun with Matt Richtel, has just gotten worse.

Richtel sells books on the fear of texting and driving (which, of course, is dangerous), and the website for his book still — despite my repeated entreaties, public and private — leads with the bad, false, unsourced Internet meme, that “the texting-while-driving epidemic continues to claim 11 teen lives per day.” (As a reporter, how could you sleep one night with that BS up under your name? Mind boggling.)

Anyway, the new entrant is David Leohnardt. At the heavy risk of jeopardizing future opportunities to publish on the Times op-ed page, I tweeted that his recent column included “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read in the NYTimes.” Washington Post WonkBlog writer Jeff Guo pointed out Leonardt’s column, which claimed that, with regard to the recent spike in traffic deaths, “The only plausible cause is the texting, calling, watching, and posting that people now do while operating a large piece of machinery.” The column contained not a piece of evidence to support that claim (though there were some awful anecdotes), which is why I said it was dumb.

Which is too bad. But even though the spike in traffic deaths is concerning, reporting should not be wrong.

Early estimates from the National Safety Council (which uses a different method than the Federal NHTSA) show a 6% increase in traffic fatalities for 2016. Leonhardt, working really hard to make that absolutely as alarming as possible, produced this graph, showing percent change in fatalities over successive two year periods going back to 1980:


Because it’s hard to add up the pluses and minuses in your head, It would be really easy — really really easy — to look at Leonhardt’s chart and think fatalities are higher now than they were in 1980. But rather than pointing out that fatalities per person have fallen by half since 1980, he instead writes, “It’s the first significant rise in a half century,” which would be true except for the significant rise in every single decade of the last half century.

This is a lot like when Richtel described the 2015 rise as, “soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years.” Not that the rate was not seen in 50 years, of course, just that the soaring of the rate hadn’t been (or so the NYT Science Desk told me when I complained).

Adding 6% to the NHTSA numbers for 2015, I get the follow graph, showing the trends in deaths per person in the population, and deaths per mile traveled, as changes since 1970. (The deaths per mile haven’t been released for the whole year yet; click to enlarge.)


That is a troubling spike, which takes us all the way back to 2009 fatality rates. We should make the roads safer, by using them less and using them more safely. But come on, NYTimes.

Read the whole, completely aggravating series, under the texting tag.


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Is the New York Times trapped in an economics echo chamber?

Ask a stupid question.

When Justin Wolfers wrote about the dominance of economists in the pages of the New York Times, he concluded, “our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.” I discussed the evidence for that in this post, which focused on the particular organizational features of the NYT. At the time it didn’t occur to me that his data — relying on uses of “economist” in the paper — would be corrupted by false attributions. So this is a small data story and a larger point.

The small data story comes from a personal reflection by Dionne Searcey, who wrote about work-family conflict in her new post as West Africa Bureau Chief for the NYT. It was a perfectly reasonable piece, except for one thing:

Much has been written about work-life balance, about women getting ahead in their careers and trying to have it all. I often find that if you scratch beneath the surface of many successful working moms, they have husbands who work from home or have flexible schedules and possibly a trust fund. Or in many cases, you find a mom who does more than her fair share at home — or at least feels as if she does. Economists have a name for it, “the second shift.”

Wait, “economists”? The Second Shift is a classic work of sociology by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung first published in 1989 and revised twice. Why “economists”? The (very good) article that Searcey linked to was called, “The Second Shift: Men Do More at Home, but Not as Much as They Think,” written by journalist Claire Cain Miller, focusing principally on the research of several sociologists, led by Jill Yavorsky (a sociology PhD candidate at Ohio State with whom I have collaborated). There are no economists cited or quoted in the story.

The small data story is that this mention of economists will go into Wolfers’ count of the influence of economists in the marketplace of ideas, but it’s a false positive — it’s the influence of sociologists being falsely attributed to economists.

But why would Searcey say “economists”? The answer lies in the organizational culture of the NYT. Here’s why.

Here are my two tweets on the piece:

Considerately, Searcey replied:

How odd. When I pointed out again that the story she linked to was about sociologists talking about the second shift, she didn’t reply.

I recently wrote that economists don’t cite sociologists’ work as much as sociologists cite economists even when the two groups are working on the same questions with obvious implications for both. What about the second shift? A JSTOR search reveals 473 cases of “second shift” and “housework” in journals identified as sociology by the database. The same search in the realm of economics produces just 35 mentions (no fewer than 6 of which were written by sociologists).

So, why did Searcey think she “was referring to how economists talk about the second shift”? My only explanation is that it’s because the piece was published in the NYT section The Upshot. As I wrote in my Contexts post, Upshot

is edited by David Leonhardt, who was an economics columnist before he was promoted to Washington bureau chief in 2011. That promotion was a dramatic move, elevating an economics writer who hadn’t been a Washington political reporter. Upshot is a “data journalism” hub, which often (but not always) implies an economic focus. (On the opinion pages, economist Paul Krugman writes a column twice a week, and Joseph Stiglitz moderated a long series on inequality.) This can’t be the whole story, but in broad strokes it’s fair to say the paper as an organization moved in the direction of business and economics.

Upshot is, of course, where Wolfers was writing in praise of the idea-market power of economists. Is this just the free market of ideas allowing the most persuasive to rise to the top? Searcey’s errors suggests that it is not. Rather, the organizational status of economics has corrupted her perceptions so that if something appears there she simply believes it reflects economics (and no editor notices).

Incidentally David Leonhardt (whom I’ve written about several times) has been promoted to Op-Ed page columnist and associate editorial page editor.


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NYT magazine infographic: not just dumb and annoying

This graphic from the New York Times magazine is bad data presented poorly (and reproduced poorly, by my camera phone):


It’s presented poorly because those blood stains are impossible to compare since you can’t discern their edges, and it appears they don’t taper toward the edges at the same rate. Maybe they simply resized one of them to get the relative size, which would be wrong. Anyway, if they cared about communicating the data they probably would have used real data in the first place. (You could also complain that a red speckle-cloud is unfriendly to some color-blind people.)

It’s bad data because it’s an online NYT reader survey, which — although it’s from the “research and analytics” department (and no, I’m not going to add “analytics” to my Windows dictionary) — represents unknown sample selection effects on an undefined population. In other words, who cares what they think?

A survey like that would be a start if it was the only way you had to answer an important or hard-to-measure issue, and if you clearly stated that it was likely unreliable. But in this case there is good, nationally-representative data on this very question. So if NYT Magazine wanted to inform its readers of something, they could have used this.

Here’s the good data — from the General Social Survey — in a graph that is at least a lot better: this is good data in a chart that’s easier to read accurately, includes a breakout by strength of opinion, and uses more accessible colors (click to enlarge).

gss spank 2014.xlsx

I think the NYT Magazine graphics violations are not just dumb and annoying — here’s another post all about them — I think they harm the public good. Graphics like this spread ignorance and contribute to the perception that statistics – especially graphic statistics – are just an arbitrary way of manipulating people rather than a set of tools for exploring data and attempting to answer real questions. (If you want awesome real graphics, check out Healy and Moody’s Annual Review of Sociology paper.)

P.S., I wrote more about spanking here.

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That Sunday New York Times Style section trend piece

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Just folks trying to survive their divorces.

Does it matter which one?

You know it from the opening paragraphs:

The women are architects, film industry executives, skin care consultants, product managers at tech companies, psychologists. They have worked in finance, publishing and television, though some had scaled back or left the work force when their children were born.

Divorce is what they have in common. Their stories are varied: the breadwinner wife whose husband’s career hadn’t quite taken off and who found comfort in an affair; the husband who never really adapted to parenthood; the wife with Ivy League degrees who stayed home with her child but lost her way in the marriage while the husband thrived in his international career.

Really. Divorce is what they have in common? How hard would it be to include a single mention of how rich and privileged these women are compared to the typical woman getting divorced? Penelope Green’s story never mentions the possibility.

Here is what a five-minute effort would have looked like:


These 10 occupations account for 25% of all women age 40+ who reported getting divorced in the previous year.

In addition, 34% of those just-divorced, 40+ women are not non-Hispanic Whites (14% Black, 13% Hispanic, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander).

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Is it me or is the liberal media elite getting more tone-deaf?

In two acts.

Act I: David Brooks

For whatever reason, one of the first things I read today was this David Brooks column, “The Nature of Poverty.” Brooks is selling character these days, so his own brand of vapid exhortation on the subject has reached a fever pitch in his columns. But in this case what struck me was not the pedantic “we’ve done so much and they are still not pulling their own weight” thing (not a quote), but the extreme blindness on the issue of the protests — which he didn’t even mention (after this sociology 101 fail of an opening: “Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot” — which is a quote).

What I mean is, the Black (and other) residents of the city rising up in protest is staring him in the face as a response to decades of exploitation, marginalization, and repression, and he just wants to talk about the same old problem of lacking “responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.” Amazingly, in the very next sentence, he offers this juxtaposition: “a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.”

Really, ballet? Could he not think of any of the other millions of examples of social life that fit exactly the description, “a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors”? That basically describes any society (even poor ones), or any collective activity. Maybe it never crossed his mind that juxtaposing the character-deprived ghetto with the beautiful ballet might have a slightly elitist connotation? I know ballet is not — and should not be — all White, but it’s pretty White, especially in the popular imagination. Here’s the first page Google image search for “ballet child”:


Of course, social organization is a big issue, and concentrating the efforts of poor communities for successful social change is vitally important. Brooks sees the dysfunction, and the riot, but he doesn’t see the beautifully unfolding protest, the real story of the day.

Act II: Nina Totenberg

After that aggravation, imagine my delight when, as my New York Times / NPR morning unfolded, I found out Nina Totenberg was one of the panelists on the Diane Rehm show’s weekly news roundup. Always rational and erudite, a keen legal analyst, she may be the favorite voice on NPR. But today her cluelessness reminded me a lot of Brooks’.

Seven minutes into the show, they turned from the details of the Baltimore situation to the social context, and Totenberg launched into this description of the city. This is her entire comment:

If you go to Baltimore – and they’re our neighbors here, and we go all the time – it is the quintessential example of a city that once was a thriving manufacturing, also a port, city. And now when you go there, they’ve built up the Harbor, and that’s lovely, but you drive through that city – it’s not that big – and half of it looks boarded up, people are standing on the street corners looking – just hanging out, looking like they’re probably drunk, and with nothing to do. It is sort of – the scene when you drive through the city, if you’re going to Johns Hopkins for something, and you drive through that city, it is reminiscent of what townships looked like in apartheid South Africa. It’s not a pretty sight.

This struck me as the nadir of the elitist media model that the show represents so well. She is telling us about Baltimore, based on her expertise which stems, apparently, from visiting the Inner Harbor and driving through “half the city” on her way to Johns Hopkins University. (Her use of the second person in “you’re going to Johns Hopkins for something” brings to mind Rebecca Skloot’s description in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in which the poor Black population of Baltimore historically had no contact with the elite White campus in its midst.)

Of course, unemployment is a serious problem in the poor parts of Baltimore — and their addicts can’t as easily conceal their condition as can those with more wealth and real estate. But it’s the old, scared-White-person-driving-through-the-ghetto thing that Rand Paul illustrated the other day with, “I came through the train on Baltimore last night. I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” You would think Totenberg would have watched The Wire at least enough to get the point that behind the unemployed people on street corners — inside the homes that you can’t drive through — there are men, women, and children doing all the other things people try to do everywhere else in the country, but with less money and more police brutality to contend with.

Of course she’s sympathetic about poverty. So I would have let it go, if she hadn’t followed it up with this. When host Susan Page mentioned the controversy over “calling them riots or rebellions,” and Obama using the word “thugs.” She asked, “Nina, how much difference does the language that we journalists use matter in a case like this?” To which Totenberg responded:

Well, I suppose it does. But I don’t see that people who are setting fires and breaking windows and looting stores, that you can call it a rebellion. That’s a really – that’s a stretch for me. You can have terrible wrongs, at the same time that you have a reaction that’s – inappropriate – let’s put it that way. I mean, I read a story that even some of the gang members [chuckle] were helping to calm things down.

First, I’m trying to think of an example from history of something that you would call a rebellion — in anything but a metaphorical sense — that would not include setting fires, breaking windows, and looting stores. To make matters worse, her followup gang comment, rather than illustrating a heightened level of community solidarity that has appeared in Baltimore, is somehow supposed to make the rioters look even more savage, because they’re even offending gang members.

Toward the end of the hour Susan Page gave Totenberg a chance to help herself out a little:

Page: We’ve gotten several emails, directed at you Nina, and a comment that you made earlier. I’ll just read one of them from W. Middleton, who’s writing us from Ohio, this person writes, “I am troubled by the poor choice of words describing citizens of Baltimore. To say that people are just standing around and looking drunk is insulting and in many ways captures a racist portrayal of communities of color.” What would you say, Nina?

Totenberg: Well, I s— didn’t have in mind any particular race. What I had in mind was people who obviously have no job, nothing to do, are standing on the corner, not fully functional, perhaps I should’ve said “not fully functional,” and that is the saddest thing in a, in a country that prides itself on the ability to – uh, as a working country.

Completely missing the point that it’s not necessarily offensive to describe a drunk person on the street corner as a drunk person on a street corner, what’s offensive is describing half the city as a drunk person on a street corner.


The authenticity craze sweeping young people is accentuated by social media, which delivers “real time” information, and smartphone cameras, which are perceived as unedited windows into reality. That these old media elites would say things offensive to poor Black people is of course not news. But what strikes me more and more is that the out-of-touchness of their offensiveness is growing increasingly apparent in contrast to the wave of apparently (if not actually) unmediated, authentic information all around them.


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