Published May 22, 2003, in Investors Business Daily
Pattern of Deceit is Deeper than Times Wants to Admit
By John R. Lott Jr.
The New York Times has suffered a major black eye with revelations that one of its reporters made up events, facts, or engaged in plagiarizism some 50 times. Yet, the Times has won praise for owning up to this problem, and in doing so may seem to have put the controversy behind it.
Unfortunately, this pattern of reporting goes much deeper than the Times admits. As an example, take the major 20,000 word series on "rampage killings" the Times published during 2000.
The paper declared that the evidence they compiled "confirmed the public perception that they appear to be increasing." Indeed, the Times found that exactly 100 such attacks took place during the 50 years from 1949-to-1999, 51 of which occurred after the beginning of 1995. Their conclusion: "the nation needs tighter gun laws for everyone."
Observed A Flaw
Having done a lot of work on this topic (together with Bill Landes at the University of Chicago), I immediately noticed that the Times noted virtually all the cases during the second half of the 1990s, but omitted most of the cases prior to that.
While a side bar to one of the articles briefly cautions that the series "does not include every attack," the omissions are so extremely skewed as to produce a nine-fold increase between the 1949-to-1994 and 1995-to-1999 periods.
The Times claimed that from 1977 to 1994 there was an annual average of only 2.6 attacks where at least one person was killed in a public multiple victim attack (not including robberies or political killings). Yet, what we found was an average of 17 per year.
Instead of the sudden surge starting in 1995, the actual national data we compiled shows lots of ups and downs, but with no generally rising or falling pattern. For instance, 1996 had an unusually large number of attacks, though the level began to recede in 1997.
I telephoned the article's main author, Ford Fessenden, who after initial claims that they had been extremely careful admitted that the staff working on the project had primarily concentrated on cases in the more recent years. They had only gotten the easily obtainable cases from earlier years. I noted that it was strange that anyone would think that there were exactly 100 such attacks over the 50 years, and he indicated that 100 simply seemed like a convenient number to stop at.
How the data was collected also affected other less dramatic findings. The Times claimed that attacks had increased modestly in the late 1980s and that this increase coincided with the period during which the ?production of semi-automatic pistols overtook the production of revolvers.?
But again, there was no such increase in the late 1980s. If anything, just the opposite was generally occurring, when one examined all the cases during this earlier period, even though there was a significant variation from year-to-year in the rate of attacks. The number of public shootings per 10 million people had actually been falling prior to that, declining from 1 in 1985 to .9 in 1990 to .5 in 1995.
Fessenden noted that he was familiar with our research but that they had never made an attempt to compare the two data sets. He then asked how long it had taken us to get together all the cases. When I told him a couple of thousand hours he said that there was "no way" they could have devoted that much time to the project.
Unfortunately, the Times never ran a correction and never published any letters noting that the huge increase in these crimes that undoubtedly scared many people was merely a figment of how the data was collected.
The policy prescriptions put forward by the Times simply assumed that tighter gun laws would save lives. Fox Butterfield, another reporter who wrote part of the Times? series, told me that no formal statistical tests were done because some academics had advised him that there was "no way that [they] would get any statistically significant results," and that the Times never checked to see whether that was true.
But more importantly Butterfield's answer also creates other disturbing problems for the Times study. Why would the newspaper, or any institution doing research, assert benefits to gun laws if they seriously doubted that their data would confirm their claims?
However, as the Times knew, Bill Landes and I had examined all the different gun control laws advocated by the Times and come to the opposite conclusion. All the gun laws discussed by the paper (such as waiting periods, background checks, and one-gun-a-month restrictions) turned out not to have any significant effect on public shootings. We found only one policy that effectively does this: the passage of right-to-carry laws. A policy that the Times never even discussed.
Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate is driven by lopsided coverage of gun use. The New York Times series played to the worst sensationalism by trying to scare people into thinking that there was an exploding crisis of "rampage killings."
*John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the newly released The Bias Against Guns, which examines this evidence on multiple victim killings.