Accuracy in Media

In the nearly two weeks since the Trump administration announced it would add a question to the Census asking whether respondents were U.S. citizens, the controversy over it has all but disappeared save for left-leaning members of the mainstream media.

After the initial outrage, it became apparent the question was not new nor was it particularly harmful, and, in fact, had been asked in every Census except the 2010 count, when the Obama administration ordered it removed.

Lawsuits have been filed in California, New York and elsewhere by state attorneys general who say the question will lead to undercounting of their citizens, which will mean less money for federal programs. But beyond that, it seems only the Fourth Estate remains concerned – and then only as yet another vehicle by which to criticize President Trump.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated the problem with the lead on its recent story on the Census.

“The Trump administration’s decision to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census smacks of an effort to intimidate immigrants and reduce the congressional representation of districts with heavy non-citizen populations,” the Post-Dispatch wrote.

“That said, it’s not altogether a bad question to ask, along with others that help demographers provide more accurate statistical breakdowns of the U.S. population.”  

“Because of President Donald Trump’s record on immigration, the citizenship question is now a hot button issue,” the Post-Dispatch continued. “Critics charge the question is motivated by the president’s desire to uproot or de-legitimize non-citizens.”

It then points out the Census Bureau is banned by law from using the information for any purpose other than statistical compilations.

“So far, the administration has done a lousy job of explaining its motivation,” the Post-Dispatch offered in conclusion. But the administration did explain that it wanted the data or better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

The Washington Post has given up for the most part on taking on the issue head-on and has retreated to providing historical perspectives on worst-case scenarios.

It ran a long piece over the weekend on how the Census was used to track down Japanese people living in the U.S. so they could be sent to internment camps during World War II. Only, the critical questions then did not involve citizenship but rather national origin, which no one has argued should be removed from the upcoming Census.

The announcement “ignited fears that the information could be used to target those in the country illegally.”

There are safeguards in place, the Post pointed out.

“But that does not mean that census data has not been used to target specific populations in the past,” the Post stated.

It then recounted how researchers have found census data was used to help the government find Japanese, down to using microdata – names and addresses of actual individuals – taken from Census responses.

The Census Bureau had the authority to do this under the Second War Powers Act, which suspended the confidentiality protections for census data.

“That meant while the information released was not illegal, it was ethically questionable,” the researchers said.

The Post then pointed out, as had all others, that census data could not be shared with law enforcement agencies.

“Even so, that is not enough assurance for some, who cite a series of statements made by the Trump administration,” the Post stated.

Ken Prewitt, director of the 2000 Census and one of the eight former directors of the Census Bureau who counseled against including the question, was allowed to give his opinion on the Trump administration’s decision – not countered by anyone representing the administration’s viewpoint.

“I have to be agnostic,” Prewitt said when asked whether there were safeguards in place to prevent disclosure of private information in the 2020 Census. “We do know the mood of Washington with respect to immigration. We have an administration that has said we simply have got to get rid of the people who do not belong here.”

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