Statistics and journalism

My dad always had a saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars will figure.” Or something like that. The other day on the radio I heard a news report that used a seemingly shocking statistic–shocking unless you actually thought about it. The claim was that online firearm sales have increased dramatically over the past 15 years.

At first blink that sounds alarming–and perhaps it is–but what is it really saying? Consider that went online in 1996–fifteen years ago. Was much of anything being sold online prior to that? That’s almost like saying the number of customers has risen dramatically over the past 15 years. Well, duh! I’m pretty sure the increase has been astronomical compared to the previous 15 years before existed. All they’re really saying is that firearm sales online have increased as the level of online shopping has increased. And who would be surprised by that?

And just what is considered “dramatic”, anyway? You could say that gun sales have increased 500%, and that would be dramatic. But if in 1996 only 100 guns were sold online, increasing that to 500 guns being sold in 2011 isn’t really that dramatic. If the figure went from 100 guns in 1996 to 100,000,000 in 2011–that would be dramatic. But the story didn’t say, so we’re left to decide for ourselves just how scary this scary statistic is supposed to be.

This post is not a pro/anti-gun post. It’s an anti-stupid-statistics post. It could have been Barbie dolls for all I care. The real news in this story would have been if online sales of Item X had not increased dramatically over the last 15. That would be an example of something bucking a trend, and that would be news.

But when they offer a no-brainer statistic like that disguised as something shocking and alarmist they’re shooting their credibility in the foot and leaving themselves open to accusations of bias. And those accusations would easy to believe. What possible purpose could a journalist have for making a statistic sound worse than it is, if not to raise support for the side that would like to see that statistic lowered? This happened to be part of a news story on a new bill trying to regulate online gun sales. Shoddy reporting now makes it appear as if this reporter, if not her network, supports gun control.

Chances are the reporter was just trying to make the story sound interesting at all. Senators trying to control gun sales–that’s not exactly news. Online gun sales increasing is not news either. So why not get to the heart of the matter and report actual news and give a useful statistic, like the number of gun sales online last year compared to “brick-n-mortar” sales, followed by the reason why this is important; most, if not all, of those sales were conducted without proper identification being checked on either side of the deal, and without being subject to the same regulations and background checks that physical gunshops are subject to?

Now that I’ve had a chance to think this through I’ve decided that perhaps there may be a reason to be concerned about online gun sales. While I generally support gun ownership rights, I’m not necessarily in the NRA camp on this. I do support waiting periods and background checks. Most online purchases have their own waiting periods built in–usually longer than those required by law in most states. If there are no background checks being conducted, though, I think that’s a problem. I believe individuals selling to individuals are not subject to background checks, but if there are online businesses getting away with not conducting background checks, then that’s not right. But the news story doesn’t say.

So again, the news reporter was not really doing her job. Yes, I’m aware of the problem now–or at least that somoeone else thinks there’s a problem. But I’m not given enough information to really decide for myself. This is typical. Far too often the news media goes for sensationalism and emotionalism rather than actually informing or trying to present both sides fairly.

So we’re left to decide based on our own prejudices. I disagree with gun control in general, so I tend to view the sensationalistic use of statistics and lack of real information as an attack on gun rights. Someone who supports gun control will likely view this as a substantive proof that they are right to want to further control guns. We would both be wrong in those assumptions. We simply aren’t given enough information to form a rational opinion.

We are given information designed to create a response, and while some will argue with me, I’m not so sure the journalists care what that response is, so long as there is one and we keep coming back to their news source. There have been some groups of journalists (ie. Journo-List) exposed for trying to influence public opinion in a specific, mutually-agreed direction, but I suspect for the most part journalists write what they right for one simple, non-malicious, rather mundane reason: They like being employed. They stay employed by keeping readers coming back. Readers will keep coming back if there is an emotional connection. People are just as likely to keep returning to a news source that makes them angry as one that makes them feel good.

The result is journalism that is light on detail, but heavy on weighting. It’s push-button journalism, ie. news designed to push people’s hot-buttons. But it’s also sloppy journalism, and we all need to pay closer attention and be prepared to call them on it.

So here it is: “Online gun sales have risen dramatically since they started selling guns online” is sloppy journalism! Whomever wrote that needs to go back to journalism school–and serve detention.

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