Friday, February 3, 2017


Two tweets in my twitter feed almost one following the other.

Cognitive dissonance? Fake news? Reportorial error? I don't know. But both these claims cannot be simultaneously true.

The first tweet seems to suggest that there are 85-90,000 entries per year from the seven countries on the recent visa-suspension. The figures are from Pew Research. My experience with their research and data has been that they are pretty reliable.

The second tweet is a headline from the Washington Post who are broadly, outside the political arena, pretty good but who are deeply partisan in their political reporting. This second tweet claims that 100,000 visas have been revoked related to this three month travel ban.

If the Pew numbers are correct, then you would expect the three-month revocation to affect 22,500 travelers.

So what is going on here? Explanations that leap to mind.
1) Temporal: The Pew data only goes through 2015. Perhaps entries leapt from 86,000 in 2015 to 400,000 in 2016. That would reconcile the numbers. Probability that that is the explanation? Low.

2) Definitional: Perhaps the number of visas is different from the number of people who travel. Probability? Low.

3) Extrapolation: Perhaps the Washington Post number is the result of some extrapolation of some assumed input, whereas the Pew number is based on actual entrants. Probability? Medium.

4) Source Error: Perhaps the quoted source of the information is in error and the Washington Post did not validate the information before publishing. Probability? High.

5) Reportorial Fallibility: Perhaps the Washington Post reporter simply made a mistake. Probability? High.

6) Editorial Fallibility: Perhaps the headline writer misunderstood the content of the report. Probability? High.
Those are the obvious explanations. All these explanations are common sources of error that I see in the WaPo and in the NYT. So which might it be or is there another explanation?

I clicked through the Washington Post tweet to read the article and see if I could discern the answer. Here's what they have to say in the first paragraph.
Over 100,000 visas have been revoked as a result of President Trump’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, an attorney for the government revealed in Alexandria federal court Friday.
So their source is a government attorney dealing with a particular case at Dulles airport. My guess then is that the answer is #4. The Washington Post has a single source and they did not verify the claim before publishing.

It remains possible that there is another answer.

Yesterday I saw three reports from mainstream media which were trumpeted and then falsified within a four hour time period. 1) Trump hung up on the Australian Prime Minister; 2) Trump's Supreme Court nominee founded a Fascists Forever club in high school, and 3) Trump was loosening export restrictions to Russia. The first story remains somewhat ambiguous but the Australian Prime Minister has been asked about it and refused to verify it. The second two have both been shown to be inaccurate reporting. In the past couple of months, both the WaPo and the NYT have demonstrated a strong inclination to run anything critical of Trump and only check it later.

That's regrettable. Whether you welcome the disruption represented by Trump or not, we need a credible Fourth Estate as one of our critical and more effective, though informal, checks and balances. If both our national papers squander their already diminished reputation for trustworthy reporting, we lose that check and balance.

I suspect that Congress will revive itself, with bipartisan participation, as the more traditional check on the Executive as it is supposed to be. But we need all the checks-and-balances we can get. I hope WaPo and NYT reform themselves quickly so that we don't have to automatically suspect the validity of their claims.

No comments:

Post a Comment