Monday, February 4, 2013

How to spot bad reporting

The easiest way I know to spot bad reporting is to look for the lack of comparisons.

Here is a perfect example.

It's a great little story about how the veteran suicide rate is 22 per day, not 18 as previously believed by The Department of Veterans Affairs.  Over a year, 22/day is 8030 veterans committing suicide a year, vs 6570.

What horrible news!  Four more veterans suicide every day! (1460 more a year)

Uhm, excuse me, but out of how many?  More importantly, how does that compare to the suicide rate of the general population?

As per the, there are about 22.7 million veterans (as of 9/30/2010).

That means a bit less than one out of every million veterans try to commit suicide every year.  22/22.7 million works out to 9.7 out of every 100,000 veterans.   That's not that much.   Let's compare it to non-veterans...

And the rate for non-veterans is...  (source)

about 12 non-veterans out every 100,000 non-veterans.

That's right - American veterans are less likely to commit suicide than non-veterans.   Not that surprisingly - we screen our soldiers and don't let people with serious mental issues join the army (it's where we keep all the tanks, missiles, and bombs, after all).

The real truth is that our veterans are NOT crazed lunatics.  They are sane people who have undergone horrible situation for their country (and pay), but have NOT been broken.  They handle it and handle it well.

That is not to say that we should not help our veterans.  They deserve all the help they can get, particularly when often their current problems are a direct result of the sacrifices they made for their country.

Instead, my point is that when you read news articles, you have to look for important comparisons. Any good reporter should include that information.  A bad one is either too stupid to get it (and therefore not worth reading), or worse, a liar who found the information but decided to withhold it  (and therefore can not be trusted).

If they don't give the right comparison, don't listen to them.

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