Accuracy in Media

Jezebel tells us that Texas banned more than 800 school books last year. This is not so – the State of Texas banned no school books last year. But here’s the Jezebel headline: “Texas Banned Over 800 Books Last School Year.”

Now, we can make allowances for headline writing, if we really have to. But they repeat this untruth again in the text: “My home state is at it again: Texas banned 801 books from school libraries across 22 school districts last year, the most in America, according to a new analysis by free speech advocacy organization PEN America. “ Texas, the state, did no such thing.

Now, what is true is that people within Texas did more of this “book banning” than those within any other state. Given that Texas has the second-largest population of any U.S. state this doesn’t sound like a truly terrible record to have achieved to be honest. Larger states do tend to do more of whatever than smaller ones.

There’s a larger problem with the claim though. Which is that the original source document is not talking about how many books were banned, rather, about how many instances of banning there were. This is a not-so-subtle difference. There are several people running such lists, the American Library Association and so on, but the specific source used here is PEN America (for those who do not know, largely an organization of writers concerned about the censorship of writers, a grand and good idea in and of itself). That report defines a banning this way:

In total, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans tracked 2,532 decisions to ban books between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. This includes bans on 1,648 unique book titles. The banning of a single book title could mean anywhere from one to hundreds of copies are pulled from libraries or classrooms in a school district, and often, the same title is banned in libraries, classrooms, or both in a district. PEN America does not count these duplicate bans in its unique title tally, but does acknowledge each separate ban in its overall count.

Each school district making a single decision over one book – of however many copies in however many outlets within that school district – is counted as a ban which makes up that national figure. And, of course, the state subtotals.

There are 1,026 school districts in Texas. By the method of counting being used here, there were 801 bans, or fewer than one per school district. This seems like less than a serious problem if we’re to be honest.

It’s also possible to play Jezebel’s numbers another way. Bowker is the reference book for titles in print in the US and it currently has 1.7 million entries. So, if there are 801 instances of a book ban in 22 school districts – the numbers we’re offered – then those school districts have decided that some 40, per district, out of 1.7 million are not suitable for children. This also does not sound like a great or grand level of censorship.

Jezebel, as a media outlet, ranks No. 68 in the lists of U.S. arts and entertainment sites. This position leads to some 5.4 million visits a month. It’s also part of the collection of websites at G/O Media along with Gizmodo, Jalopnik and so on. It might be possible for such a site to do better than this.

A school library system is supposed to filter what is on offer to children. The aggrandizement of these banned numbers seems to be a disagreement over what is banned rather than anything else. For when we properly regard the numbers – and compare it to what is actually published – the most obvious comment is to remark upon the constraint being applied to bans.




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