More Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Originally posted at Committee of Concerned Journalists.

I spend a lot of time trying to convince my colleagues in the Army and the Marines that the media are not the problem. I cite chapter and verse of the history of our relationship -- the dysfunctional periods, propaganda phases, the development of the ethics of good responsible American journalism -- and I'm usually able to demonstrate that while what passed for mid-19th century journalism truly was enough to drive one to distraction, in the 20th and thus far in the 21st, journalists really have been at least as professional as we, and quite often more so.

This self-appointed task, unfortunately, often remains an uphill battle, as many soldiers, Marines and their officers are convinced a media bias exists against the military in general and the ground forces in particular.

I wage my little internal struggle because I think it is right, and that my peers are often blowing small things out of proportion and seeing a bogeyman where there is none. I try to show them how this is part of a narrative that periodically recurs in military circles (the German army after WWI, the American army after Vietnam). I also try to demonstrate to them how they have been conditioned to accept the narrative as true without being critical of the assertions.

In short, I argue for journalists and journalism all of the time, and passionately.

And then the editors of the New York Times dig themselves a nice deep pit, fill it with slime and muck, and dive in headfirst.

Two weekends ago, the Times fronted a lengthy article that generally portrayed returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-ridden killers. The story's central theme was based on research by the newspaper that uncovered 121 cases of returning veterans who had killed (murder, manslaughter and in some cases DUI). '

The article's authors noted that these 121 cases might not be all such examples and that collectively, they drew an unfortunate picture. "Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak."

I must say, the article stunned me -- not because people in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, some of whom are service members, commit murder. That is not really news, is it? What threw me was fact that the NYT referred to this as a "quiet phenomenon," which is -- what -- two steps down from "subtle epidemic?" Yet it did so without noting that the 121 killings came from a population (of veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan) of about 700,000.

Even that number is probably a low estimate of the total who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. For the record, the Department of Defense says 1.7 million individuals have been through the Central Command area (which includes the surrounding countries and lovely spots such as the Horn of Africa). Unfortunately, though, nobody seems to have exact numbers for Iraq/Afghanistan alone.

It isn't tough to extrapolate a decent number: Since we have had more than 115,000 in Iraq alone (and sometimes as many as 160,000) for almost five years, these numbers are extremely reasonable even counting multiple deployments into the mix. (A single Air Force "tour" in combat is four months long, the Navy now sends people for six months, while Marines stay for seven. The Army, as of one year ago, switched to 15-month combat tours from their previous norm of 12 months.)

So, using the lowest of the lowball numbers -- 121 acts of mayhem out of 700,000 veterans spread over six years -- yields a rate of 17.28/100,000 veterans overall. Spread over six years (I am a historian, but even I can do that math.) that is 17.28/6 = 2.88 per 100,000 per year. Mind you, that is if you stick with the probably low 700,000 number of total Iraq/Afghanistan vets.

Now, go to the Department of Justice and get the stats. I used 1999 as a good pre-war year. For 18- to 34-year-olds, I totaled up the averages of homicide offenders (which do not include all the categories, such as a DUI that resulted in a death or suicide, i.e., that the NYT used) per 100,000 members of the public. Then I divided the sum by the number of age groups I considered: The result was an average of 19.4 homicide offenders in the 18- to 34-year-old age groups per 100,000 civilians in the general U.S. population -- more than six times as high as the combat veteran average, even when you include all possible acts of violence that result in death.

But the NYT didn't mention anything like this. It did not mention how many people had been to war and therefore how astonishingly small these numbers really are when placed in that context. They did not mention what the civilian average rate of murders in the 18-34 year old age range might be.

Think about that. Even if the Times was a full 100% off, and there were twice as many murders committed by veterans in that period, that still only works out to a little over 5 per 100,000 combat veterans per year. However, the paper does engage in a wee bit of bottom covering. In explaining its methodology, the paper drops in a minor de facto swing at the military as well: "The Pentagon does not keep track of such killings, most of which are prosecuted not by the military justice system but by civilian courts in state after state. Neither does the Justice Department."

No, the Pentagon does not have ready numbers on the acts of civilians. Is not that something that we fight against in other realms? Moreover, what is a man or woman after they get out of the military? They are civilians. Therefore, DoD does not track their behaviors. The number of active duty miscreants is doubtless determinable, but is undetermined.

The authors also defend their methodology in another way: "The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower."

But there are two really obvious flaws in the way they collected the "increase" statistics. Most obviously: during peacetime it is not very likely that anyone's military status would factor into a news story unless there was some obvious peg -- that person committed a crime in uniform, for example. So to assume that a crime story subject's military affiliation was as consistently referenced before Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom as it was after seems unreasonable. Further, since the Times queried only for "active duty" crimes for the six prior years, but for all Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, it is misrepresenting the de facto size of the military: the "Afghanistan-Iraq" numbers include a big number of National Guard and Reserve service members. Reporters now note when somebody is a veteran, much more often, even if that fact does not appear directly relevant to the story.

In effect, the authors compared an artificially low result of 184 from purely active duty group, with 349 cases from an "activated" group that was much larger.

PTSD is real. Problems with returning veterans are real. But fear-mongering and drawing specious conclusions from incomplete data is no help. The story could have just as easily, and more accurately, been headlined, "Military Service in a Combat Zone Reduces Incidence of Homicide." Actually, that would be a logically flawed conclusion as well -- but you get the point.

Surely, the Times employs veterans and people with a basic understanding of the statistics involved, with whom it could have checked these numbers?

This story, and the apparent series of which it is a part, ought to see some editor demoted. It is just sloppy thinking, and that does not help anyone.

You can write to LTC Bob Bateman at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

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Comments

An excellent post. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a (non-partisan, naturally) LTC Bateman fan club!

If I were worrying about the elite media's sins, I might prioritize it differently:

1) Aiding and abetting the administration's fraudulent case for the Iraq war.

2) Aiding and abetting the administration f*cking up of the Iraq war.

3) Deliberately not covering the two Lancet surveys, and the ORB survey, while giving as much time as possible to rather bad criticisms. As part of that, ridiculing the IBC project's counts, until it became time to use those to declare the Lancet surveys bad.
Why, just the other day I saw a rather bad post on a blog, where some LTC was dissing the Lancet II survey, with not much of a clue.

The NYT has a bad habit of publishing what Jack Shafer (from Slate.com) calls "bogus trend stories."

Usually documenting lifestyle trends, often counter-intuitive, among Manhattanites or those they find interesting, these stories are backed only by supposition and anecdote.

I think the archetypal example would be this story about high-achieving women choosing motherhood over careers: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/national/20women.html?ex=1284868800&en...

This is lousy journalism, but besides being a waste of time it's basically harmless as long as your reporting on mating habits on the upper west side. But you can't apply the same editorial standards to something like this.

I don't think there's a way to actually compare criminal records against military discharges in bulk. Failing that, I'd suggest comparing a sample -- checking all criminal cases from a city or county during two different years to see how many service members are involved. Even that may be impossible, in which case you better have a lot more "secondary" evidence than what I saw in this story.

It's tough enough to get past the knee jerk anti-reporter bias many in the military exhibit. It frustrates me as a journalist to see the almighty NYT actually justifying that bias.