Lies, Damned Lies, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Statistics

lies-CJR

As Mark Twain put it, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

No kidding. It’s amazing what one can do with numbers. Take for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which published its annual census of imprisoned journalists.

 Justin Martin, a blogger at the Columbia Journalism Review seized on the CPJ’s findings to create a new “statistic,” which he calls jailed journalists per capita.

These data are very helpful, but I think we can consider them under a new lamp by taking into account each country’s size. China and Eritrea, for example, have about the same number of journalists rotting in prison, 27 and 28 respectively. But the population of China is over 250 times that of the small dictatorship.

After crunching the numbers, Martin concludes that Israel ranks behind only Eritrea for jailing the most journalists per capita.

Martin’s point?

Israel, though, wants to be called a modern democracy and gets cranky when critics point out that it is not. Turkey, too, is a country that has responded to external pressure about its human rights record. Noting that these nations imprison more journalists for their size than Yemen and Iran is a powerful statement.

But there are two big problems here.

First, as Elder of Ziyon aptly points out:

The size of the country’s population has nothing to do with how many journalists are in the country. Israel has far more journalists than most countries that are much larger, because there is such intense interest in Israel. Moreover, Israel is liberal in allowing journalists to have access to the nation, as opposed to, say, practically every other nation in the Middle East.

If you want to see which nations jail the most reporters per-something, you must compare it to the total number of reporters – not the total population of the nation.

And secondly, a look at the seven journalists imprisoned in CPJ’s Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory, shows that three of them — Ziyad Awad, Mahmoud al-Barbar, and Hani al-Agha — are actually in Hamas custody.

Despite all that, Martin’s message was unfortunately crystallized by Jodi Rudoren, the incoming NY Times bureau chief. Even if Rudoren’s suddenly spooked by her new assignment, this is a very ill-advised tweet.

It takes a creative mind to come up with a per capita twist on the CPJ’s findings. But Martin teaches us it isn’t hard to reach a skewed conclusion from someone else’s true facts.

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