The Washington Post insisted that correlation likely means causation in an article attempting to tie the rise in gun purchases to the rise in violent crime.
The article, headlined, “Spike in violent crime follows rise in gun-buying amid social upheaval,” was based entirely on the assertion that the two were inextricably linked, despite saying within the story that its “authors caution that a study of this nature cannot prove causality.” That statement was buried 14 paragraphs into explaining the association.
The piece cited two unrelated studies – one showing an increase in gun sales, and another showing an uptick in violent crime. It presented the findings as if they had already confirmed causality.
“Those are the conclusions of two studies by the Brookings Institution and the University of California at Davis, respectively,” the Post reported. “Together, they paint a portrait of a society arming itself against social upheaval during a time of institutional failure.”
Not only did the Post present a false causality, it failed to acknowledge any other potential reasons for an uptick in violent crime, despite mentioning protests and COVID-19 directly in the lead.
“Americans purchased millions more guns than usual this spring, spurred in large part by racial animosity stoked by widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as anxiety over the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The article’s author, Christopher Ingraham, did not provide any evidence that gun sales were spurred by “racial animosity” beyond his own opinion.
Instead of asking whether rises in gun sales and violent crime were linked, Ingraham took two studies, shoved their data together, and reported it as a conclusion.
Other research on the spike in violent crime is readily available – CNN, NPR, ABC News and the New York Times have all reported on potential causes – which makes it appear that Ingraham and editors at the Post carefully avoided including any information that would weaken the article’s narrative.
Not being able to show causality means that they could not find any information to prove a link. But publishing a story without addressing any alternate possibilities – possibilities easily found by any of the Post’s seasoned editors, many with experience in data reporting – is a conscious choice to exclude any information that would break the association.