Accuracy in Media

Vice reports in a new piece that the police are killing ever more Americans. This is, given the method they use, true, but it’s horrendously misleading. For there are also more Americans. It is more – more that is, not exactly – true to say that the rate of police deaths is roughly steady.

One unnecessary death at the hands of the police is one too many, of course. Others might be called rather more necessary – taking down an active shooter strikes most of us as being a very reasonable deployment of violence. The numbers Vice uses don’t distinguish here:

American police killed more people last year than they have in nearly a decade, according to a nonprofit organization that has tracked and published data on deadly state violence since 2013.

Even that’s a bit twisted – the “nearly a decade” is because the numbers have only been collected for nearly a decade. The actual figures are here and they are the raw figures, unadjusted. But we do need to adjust them. The American population has grown these past 9 years, by about 5% actually, perhaps a little more when we add 2022. When we adjust for that, to get the rate not just the number then, well, police killings are about what they were. The trend in the rate seems to be the usual sort of statistical variance around a norm, even as the number rises with the population. That is, this is all about the same as the variation in many other causes of death, say falling down stairs, or being killed by your own bedsheets (no, really, something that happens).

But then we’d probably not expect Vice to report on this subject with any nuance. They have a definite view on the subject, to the point that they’ve whole sections of their archives on “police brutality” and “police killings”. They seem to think that K-9 units were invented by slavers (err, no, actually in England and about 200 years after the abolition of slavery in England and some 500 years or so before the re-invention of chattel slavery in Virginia.) When Vice says defund the police they really mean it too, just stop paying them.

Vice ranks at 79 for news and media outlets in the U.S. and gains some 30.5 million visits a month from that. But that is just the website – the magazine has a distribution of 900,000 and the TV channel reaches 60 million American homes by cable.

The problem here is that Vice has already made up its mind on the subject. Therefore new reports are simply evidence for that view rather than being reported correctly. Given the increasing population of the U.S., yes, it is true that the number of police killings are rising. But the rate seems pretty stable which would be much more informative and better reporting, in fact. But media outlets who have already made up their minds tend to not do that, instead, they run with what supports their preconceptions. As here.

We can only decide what is a problem, zero in on a solution to any of them, if the reporting of that real world is accurate in the first place, after all.




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