March 24, 2002
by David Kopel
The Denver Post's March 15 article "Health study: Minorities fare poorly" offered a litany of bad news about the health of minorities. For example, "Blacks have the highest death rates from cancer, strokes and homicide. Latinos died at highest rates from diabetes, unintentional injury and automobile accident."
The article was based on a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. The article ignored the parts of the report containing good news for minorities -- such as the report's findings that "black Coloradans do have the lowest rate of death from automobile accidents" and that "Hispanics tend to have comparatively low death rates from many chronic diseases."
Likewise omitted from the Post article were the report's findings about ways in which whites are worse off than other groups: they have the highest "death rates from cancer, heart disease and cerebrovascular disease," and white women have the highest incidence rates of breast cancer.
By ignoring whites, the Post article followed the storyline offered by the CDPHE's news release, which also mentioned nothing about whites (except to highlight instances where minorities were worse off than whites).
While the Post article accurately stated that the report was funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. The article did not offer any context for what the RWJ Foundation does; the foundation has been giving grants to state governments for more than a decade in order to promote major expansion of government control over health care.
The Post interviewed one black and two Hispanics for the article who offered reasons for minority health problems -- principally that there aren't enough black and Hispanic healthcare workers. The Post should have done more than just interview people who would validate the report's official presentation and the report's call for greater race-consciousness about healthcare workers.
First, the article should have reviewed the report itself, rather than just the press release, to find parts of the story that were being obscured by the government spin (the bad health outcomes involving whites). Second, the article should have interviewed some experts who were skeptical about the government/RWJ argument that the data prove the need for more government control over health care.
The Post's reporting of the minority health study was, however, far more responsible and accurate than the Scripps-Howard story about Internet gambling that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on March 18. The News sensationally presented a sweeping and frightening headline, "Study: Net gamblers often problem gamblers." The lead paragraph warned that "People who gamble over the Internet may actually have more profound gambling problems than those who hit the slots or play the lottery, according to a new study released Sunday."
As is typical with frantic newspaper reports of terrifying news, the article left out the tiny sample size of the study. The "Internet gamblers" were just 31 people in Connecticut, all of whom were so poor that they were receiving dental or medical care from clinics at the University of Connecticut. To extrapolate broad, frightening conclusions about Internet gamblers based solely on 31 poor people in Connecticut was ridiculous.
Unfortunately, a very large share of the social science/public health stories reported in the newspapers are bunk. Far too many reporters are willing accomplices in dissemination of sensational but implausible "studies" which provide pretexts for greater government restrictions on individual choice. Two books which provide good advice for how to recognize bad science wrapped in hysterical reporting are: Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists and David Murray, Joel Schwartz and S. Robert Lichter's It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality.The Web site junkscience.com often provides skeptical perspectives on media coverage of science.
The Federal Communication Commission recently decided that AT&T and other Internet cable companies should not be forced to let competitors use their cable lines. The Post offered perfunctory wire service coverage on the decision, while the News (on March 15) provided a much more thorough analysis, including interviews with local businesspeople.
Congressman Tom Tancredo favors reducing legal immigration to the rate of 300,000 persons per year. Writing about Tancredo's opposition to a new bill to give amnesty to illegal aliens, the Post's Washington Bureau claimed on March 8 that Tancredo is a "proponent of halting virtually all immigration." In fact, if Tancredo's proposal (House Resolution 2712) became law, there would be 3 million new legal immigrants every decade.
A lot of people believe that some sinister cabal controls American energy supplies. That view was validated by the Post's March 13 headline "Forces conspire to boost gas prices." People who read the whole article found out that the forces weren't really a conspiracy, but instead simply normal market forces (e.g., the recession is ending, so demand is up).