Monday, January 28, 2008

NY Times taken to task over "killer GI story"

NY Times "bad" article on "Whacko Warriors"


"WACKO WARRIOR" STORIES -- "...Used colorfully inflated

language -'trail of death' - for a trend it could not reliably quantify,

despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers."

Two weeks ago, The New York Times began a series about veterans who have come home from Iraq or Afghanistan and committed murder.

I did not post any of those stories to this site.

I did, however, express my displeasure over the articles...that here...

My general complaint was that these stories are not representative our veterans and just help to perpetrate the "wacko warrior" myth.

Now, the Public Editor of The New York Times has also expressed misgivings about the early articles.

The Public Editor is somewhat of a journalistic watchdog...he is the readers' representative.

And, although he feels that the series is important, he does have some harsh words for the reporters.

Public Editor comments here... http://www.nytime

Comments below:


The Public Editor

Stories That Speak for Themselves


TODAY and for the past two Sundays, The Times has devoted front-page play and pages of inside space to a continuing investigative series called “War Torn,” about veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who have killed or been charged with killings after returning home.

It is an important and tragic subject to which an investigative team has devoted more than eight months of reporting, including research into local news reports and court records, and extensive interviews with some of the veterans, their families, victims’ families and law enforcement officials often sympathetic toward both the victims and their killers.

But The Times made some missteps at the beginning of the series, and critics have pounced, accusing it of demonizing veterans and exaggerating the problem even as some mental health professionals have thanked the newspaper.

The first part, which dominated the top of Page One on Jan. 13, featured a photo montage of 24 young men, some in military uniform, some in prison garb. The article began with the story of Matthew Sepi, a 20-year-old plagued by nightmares from Iraq, who went looking for beer to help him sleep and wound up killing a gang member and wounding another with an AK-47 in a dangerous neighborhood.

“Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories,” the article said. “Taken together they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.”

The article said the newspaper had found 121 such cases, many of which appeared to involve “combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems.”

The Times was pointing out terrible examples of something the military itself acknowledges: large numbers of veterans are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with psychological problems. And, as the initial article said, a Pentagon task force found last year that the military mental health system was poorly prepared to deal with this wave of distress.

The Times was immediately accused — in The New York Post and the conservative blogosphere, and by hundreds of messages to the public editor — of portraying all veterans as unstable killers. It did not.

But, the first article used colorfully inflated language — “trail of death” — for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?

Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by The Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable. One involved a Navy Seabee accused of arranging her ex-husband’s murder during a bitter child custody battle, and another involved a soldier who was acquitted of reckless homicide in a car crash after a jury concluded that his blood alcohol level was below the legal limit and that many other accidents had happened on the same stretch of road.

Some readers wanted to know how the rate of homicides by veterans compared with the civilian rate. Several bloggers did back-of-the-envelope calculations and said the homicide rate for returning veterans was lower than the rate for the general population. So, what’s the problem, they wondered. I asked Martin T. Wells, a professor of statistical sciences at Cornell University, to take a stab at a comparative calculation. The homicide rate for returning combat veterans could be better or worse than the civilian rate, he determined, depending entirely on how many of the 1.6 million military personnel who have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars actually saw combat, a number the Pentagon does not have.

The journalists most responsible for the series — reporters Lizette Alvarez and Deborah Sontag and their editor, Matthew Purdy — argued against trying to make a comparison to civilian homicide rates. The military does not accept people with mental problems or records of serious crimes — the likeliest killers in the civilian population — so its rate is likely to be lower and the comparison irrelevant.

But they implicitly invited the comparison with a calculation of their own: Based primarily on news reports, their article said the number of homicides involving active-duty military personnel and new veterans was 89 percent higher in the six years since the wars began than in the six years before. And that increase came, the article said, even though “the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.”

It seems analytically shaky to compare admittedly incomplete news reports from two periods and express the difference as a precise 89 percent — especially, as a Pentagon spokesman said in The Times, given that the news media may not have been as sensitive to the military status of accused killers in the period before the wars.

Purdy urged me not to get lost in the numbers as I looked at the first two articles. I agree with that, but I believe The Times tangled itself in numbers right at the start. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said the newsroom’s computer-assisted reporting unit normally screens articles with statistical analyses. Some of the problems might have been avoided if someone in the unit had read the first article before it was published. But Terry Schwadron, the editor who oversees the unit, which created a database for the 121 cases, said that did not happen. “I read the story in the paper, and I shared some concerns” with Purdy, he said.

Purdy defended the series. “It is an intimate exploration of a devastating cost of the war that merits national attention and focus but has not received it,” he said, because “it is playing out in one community at a time ... with no comprehensive attention from the military.”

Keller agreed. “I believe this series is an important public service that explores in riveting detail the emotional stresses war places on this important community and the problems the military faces in coping with those stresses,” he said.

The individual stories the series has told so far are indeed sad, powerful and important. One hopes they will goad the military to figure out what went wrong and what needs fixing.

But the questionable statistics muddy the message. A handful of killings caused by the stresses of war would be too many and cause for action. Sometimes, trying to turn such stories into data — with implications of statistical proof and that old journalistic convention, the trend — harms rather than helps.

The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.


posted by Larry Scott
Founder and Editor
VA Watchdog dot Org

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