The Herald has a new column (I think just online but not sure) called “Just the facts” by Keith Ng.
Now I’m very supportive of any attempt by the media to fact check claims by politicians – or even to put them into context. And I think Keith generally has a good track record with checking the facts out.
But there is a danger on having just one person set up as “the fact checker”. Factcheck.org in the US had around a dozen staff. Because one’s personal political views can influence what facts you find relevant, what story you tell with facts. There is a reason people refer to “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
As an example, I’ll criticise below one of Keith’s fact checks – not to say I am right and Keith is wrong, but how the use or non use of certain facts can give different impressions:
“Violent youth crime is at an all-time high”.
JOHN KEY (STATE OF THE NATION SPEECH, JAN 29)
That’s true, but
Okay the insignificant little detail that John Key is correct is given just two words. Wouldn’t it have been useful to provide the actual statistics on violent youth offending. Then people could judge how significant the increase is. Just two words supporting the fact he is correct, and several hundred words on trying to undermine his assertion.
violent old-people crime is at an all-time high, too. Violent crime for every age group over 13 is, technically, “at an all-time high”, and the fastest growing group of violent offenders is in the 51-99 category.
So the defence to the rise in violent youth crime, is that violent crime is up for all age groups. Okay well why not give us offending rates in say 2000 and 2007 for all age groups so people can see the absolute rates and the growth for each age group.
Boot camp for old people, anyone? Young people commit more violent crimes than people over 30, but the increase is happening across the board.
That looks like sarcasm, not facts. One can have an entire separate debate about “boot camps” – something along the lines of better to turn people away from crime when they are younger. And also the overwhelming support for the policy from experts in the youth offending area. But hey I’m getting away from the facts.
And again why not provide the facts for violent offending of under 30s and over 30s.
Youth crime as a whole is actually decreasing:
Could have been useful to mention that the overall reported crime figures are generally held to be relatively meaningless as they treat murdering someone the same as having a joint on you. One could do an entire article on why the overall crime rate is such a flawed measure – instead of using it as rebuttal to a true statement about violent youth crime offending.
As an alternative why not point out what areas of youth crime are increasing (violent and sexual I think) and what areas are decreasing?
2006 saw the lowest number of arrests for youth offending since 1995.
Now the context of the statement is a speech by the National Leader, criticising the current Govt’s policies. Why not compare 2006 to 1999 instead of the previous high of 1995?
When the change in population is taken into account, that’s a 17 per cent decrease over 10 years.
And how much took place from 1995 to 1999, and how much from 2000 to 2006? All facts which would be useful.
I could go through and apply a similar analysis to the other “Just the Facts” articles, but I won’t. The purpose isn’t to attack Keith (who I think is an excellent journalist), but to show that there are dangers in labelling any article as “Just the facts”. It all comes down to what is subjective choices as to which facts to include, whether or not to use absolute or relative data, what time frames to choose etc etc.Tags: Fact Check, Keith Ng, Media, NZ Herald