Saturday, March 8, 2008

Kopel on Intellectually Honest Reporting

The Saturday March 8, 2008 Rocky Mountain News published an excellent column by David Kopel, discussing Denver Post writer Katy Human's claims about health care, Ari Armstrong's public challenge for her to cite her sources, her refusal to do so, and the results when she finally responded.

On February 10, 2008, in the Denver Post article "Growth spurt for kids' health plan", Katy Human wrote:
Children with health insurance, studies have shown, are less likely than uninsured kids to end up in emergency rooms, more likely to get key vaccinations, and less likely to be absent from school.
Writer and blogger Ari Armstrong then politely asked her for her citations. She initially refused, but eventually sent citations of 5 studies that supposedly supported her point.

David Kopel then analyzed the studies and reported the following for the Rocky Mountain News:
None of five studies Human cited after the fact support her article's statement about what "studies have shown" regarding the effects of insurance on emergency room use, vaccinations and school absences. Indeed four of the five studies she cited do not even address those topics. ...One study cited by Human was relevant, and it directly contradicted her article's claim.

...So Human's pronouncement in her Post article - "Children with health insurance, studies have shown, are less likely than uninsured kids to end up in emergency rooms" - turns out to be not entirely accurate. A large body of research contradicts her claim, and that research is in the very studies which Human pointed to when she was challenged to support her claims.

...In the last two years, the phrase "studies have shown" has appeared in staff-written pieces 31 times in the Rocky Mountain News, and 36 times in the Post. About half the time the phrase is used in a direct quote, or in another way which tells the reader the source of the information. For example, "According to professor Roy Hinkley, studies have shown that minnows . . . "

But the other half of the time, the dailies used "studies have shown" with no source. The unattributed locution was especially common in Post editorials, and in health and nutrition coverage in both papers.

The phrase ill-serves readers who want to learn more about a subject, but who are left in the dark about where to look. The phrase can be used to falsely declare scholarly consensus about a subject. And the phrase can be a crutch for a writer who feels "sure" about a supposed fact, but who doesn't want to take the time to verify it.
Thank you, David Kopel, for a very illuminating piece!

If I didn't know better, I might almost wonder if a reporter had a particular ideological agenda and tried to slant a news story to support a political view favoring more government control of medicine, rather than trying to write the news in an objective fashion based on the actual facts.

But that would imply that there was some sort of "liberal media bias", and we all know that couldn't be the case...