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Monday, April 16, 2012

Follow-up on CJR's absurd article saying Israel jails more journalists "per capita"

Columbia Journalism Review has an article by Sohrab Ahmari that discusses the disgraceful manipulation and misuse of statistics that Justin Martin used at CJR two weeks ago to make it look like Israel treats journalists worse than almost every country on Earth. (I was the first to point out the falsehood of Martin's statistics.)

In recent years, the Columbia Journalism Review has devoted special attention to the use and misuse of statistics in American journalism, taking reporters to task when they have fallen for unreliable statistics or failed to seek the human stories behind data. The cover essay in the March/April 2011 issue, for example, harshly criticized the Los Angeles Times for publishing the names of thousands of public school teachers next to their “value-added” performance data without giving readers sufficient context to interpret these numbers. In its next issue, CJR lauded an alternative weekly reporter for exposing the faulty methodology behind wildly alarming sex trafficking statistics that were uncritically picked up by a number of regional broadsheets. Such instances of statistical credulity and probity on the part of journalists regularly earn “darts” and “laurels” in the pages of CJR.

Such efforts are admirable. But they also require CJR to be doubly cautious in its own use of statistics. On April 2, columnist Justin Martin posted an article on the CJR website purporting to spotlight the twelve countries with the most number of journalists jailed “per capita.” Save for the conspicuous absence of China, the resulting list of authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states was mostly predictable. But one country stood out from the rest: Israel. The Jewish state, according to Mr. Martin, jails more journalists per capita than the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, and the Burmese junta, among others. Only Eritrea, Mr. Martin claimed, jails more reporters per capita.

....Mr. Martin’s findings soon sparked a firestorm of controversy, with supporters of Israel crying foul at the latest instance of Israel-bashing in the prestige press. ...The outrage was justified. Mr. Martin’s conclusion would not have passed professional muster under the standards CJR imposes on other outlets. Indeed, his methodology was a classic example of the sort of statistical recklessness that CJR scolds other journalists for.

To reach his per capita number, Mr. Martin merely divided the number of journalists detained—a number that, in the case of Israel, was debatable to begin with—by each country’s population in millions. As Commentary’s Omri Ceren pointed out, however, “If you want a ‘per capita’ number describing which countries disproportionately target journalists, you divide the jailed journalists in each country by the total number of journalists in each country, not by the total number of people.” Otherwise, tiny Israel—home to a huge press corps and where commentators in the Arab and leftist presses regularly question the state’s very right to exist—ends up appearing more repressive than, say, North Korea, where a totalitarian regime does not permit journalism as such to exist.

Allowing Mr. Martin to skewer the Jewish state using faulty statistics undermines CJR’s role as professional watchdog. But the harm done extends beyond journalistic standards. The ultimate impact of pieces like Mr. Martin’s is a softening of the reading public’s moral intuitions and sensitivities. By placing Israel on the same plane as the likes of Iran and Syria, Mr. Martin minimized the threats faced by journalists working under genuine authoritarianisms—not to mention the broader human rights catastrophes underway in these societies.

In Iran, where I was born and spent the first half of my life, journalists and writers are persecuted on a nearly industrial scale; dozens of outlets are shuttered every year. Just last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, Nazanin Khosravani, a reformist writer, began serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s nightmarish Evin prison for the crime of “propagating against the system”—a charge unheard of in Israel. But why should Western audiences care about these very real injustices when seemingly authoritative “statistics” show the West—including Israel and the U.S.—to be equally authoritarian? Mr. Martin thus challenged the common moral sense of his readers, distorting conclusions they would otherwise draw from straightforward reporting on the realities of practicing journalism in free and unfree societies. Will he earn a dart from CJR anytime soon?
Martin's response is more than lame:
I fully agree with this criticism. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have reliable data on national tallies for working reporters in many of the countries—Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia—that jail journalists. And even if such data were available, we would want counts of how many newsmakers in each country were working for regime-owned news sources versus private organizations. For now, although the data are a bit large and cumbersome, ratios of imprisoned reporters to countries’ population still deliver some meaning.
No, they don't. They obscure meaning. It is as worthwhile as comparing the number of jailed journalists to the number of registered dogs in the same country.

Martin then gets even more ridiculous, trying to take credit for spending 30 seconds to subtract the journalists jailed by Hamas in the original survey, and helping Israel look better. Wow - we should praise him for doing something that any high-school reporter would be expected to do?

Martin proved himself to be anything but a serious journalist with this episode. He has now proven that he has no credibility in criticizing other journalists, at all.

(h/t David G)