Journalistic Integrity

I am naive enough to think I remember a time when there was some modicum of journalistic integrity in the media. I am sure I remember a time when the news was reported in an understated, even handed manner. I am not so insane that I think the news has ever been really free of some element of spin and “PR” work, however it strikes me that today it is so endemic no one notices any more.

Two recent examples have highlighted how the use of English can create a massively different news item.

The first came up during a bored spell spend looking over regional news items and regional news papers. The Belfast Telegraph had an article on a man who had survived a horrific attack by the Shankill Butchers and apparently died of a stroke recently. I suspect the lazy journalists at the Belfast Telegraph have over-used Wikipedia as a source, which highlighted my initial concern. Before I go on, I should emphasise I am not disagreeing that they were ruthless, evil sadists and that this person survived after having both wrists slit is amazing.

The Wiki entry on the Shankill Butchers (today at least) reads:

The “Shankill Butchers” were a group of Ulster Volunteer Force members in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who abducted Roman Catholics usually walking home from a night out, tortured and/or savagely beat them, and killed them, usually by cutting their throats.

In the Telegraph it was similar, with the emphasis being on how the sadistic nutters terrorised the Catholic community. Interestingly, they are “credited” with torturing and killing 19 people, of whom 7 were Catholics. Given that, at that time in Northern Ireland, it is unlikely any of the victims would have been described as “atheists” it seems logical to say 12 of the victims were Protestants.

The Shankill Butchers killed 150% more Protestants than Catholics, yet almost all the media reports about them describe them as almost exclusively targeting Catholics.

The point I am trying to make here is not one group suffered more than the other and I am not trying to trivialise the suffering the communities underwent as a result of their insane behaviour. What interests (and worries) me is that by dismissing a whole spectrum of their activities the larger group of victims is marginalised to the point at which they cease to exist. Instead of describing this as a shared community horror, it is sold to the public as a 100% sectarian event, possibly inflaming relatives of the dead.

How can that be good for bringing the two communities together?

The next recent issue is unrelated. Listening to today’s Radio 1 news (yes, sorry) there was a bit in the morning where they talked about domestic abuse. The newsreader read out that the number of reported cases of domestic abuse has tripled over (memory hazy but 3 years seems what they said), however in an alarming manner he also reported “the number of convictions remains the same at 17%.” I cant find the exact numbers used but it was along the lines of 1000 has increased to 3000.

Wow. How terrible. The implication was that more cases were going to court but the “system” had not managed to secure any more convictions, and what a terrible legal system we must have if these people (who are obviously guilty because it has gone to court…) are getting away with it.

However, given ten seconds consideration and you can see the language used by the newsreader was inherently misleading.

The first part of the item gave a number. Hard figures. It might not have been a nicely rounded as 1000 to 3000 but it was something like that. This is something you can hang your hat on. The optimist will see this increase as people feeling able to report more abuse, the pessimist will see it as more abuse happening. (Or vice versa…). That is not the issue.

When the news reader stated the “number” of convictions had remained the same he then went on to give a percentage rather than an actual number. This is a significant issue. If we take round numbers, you can see there is a HUGE difference between 1000 reports and 170 convictions which has increased to 3000 reports with 170 convictions and 1000 reports / 170 convictions becoming 3000 reports and 510 convictions.

In the first example, it would indicate a problem and he would be correct that the “number” of convictions was the same. The second example uses the numbers the newsreader used, but the “number” of convictions has certainly changed.

If you want to spin a news item to make people worry about an ineffective legal system you say “the numbers haven’t changed” (which is, actually, a lie). Was that BBC Radio 1’s intention? One of the reasons this annoyed me, is that on getting into my workplace – filled with supposedly “thoughtful” and “analytical” people, I had several conversations about how the legal system was letting people down and despite more reports, they hadn’t managed to get more convictions…

The world is mad.

5 thoughts on “Journalistic Integrity

  1. Good catch on the statistical sleight of hand. That kind of shift is common in media reports. The system has actually remained consistent, not deteriorated as the reporter seems to imply.

    Re: the Shankill coverage, that sort of skewed emphasis does nothing to reconcile groups who already distrust each other. Nice public service, that. 🙁

  2. TW
    Very good post.

    But I think you’ve accidentally done the same thing yourself. You say
    “the Shankill Butchers killed 150% more Protestants than Catholics”
    but the numb3rs actually show – the second number of victims (12) is about ‘50% more’ or ‘150% of’ the first number (7) 🙂

    A Pedant

  3. I heard this report as well. When you think about it, it’s surprising that the conviction rate didn’t drop – people that weren’t previously reporting crimes aren’t likely to have had easier cases to convict on (if that makes sense). On the other hand, 17% is a low conviction rate, and anecdotal evidence presented by the journalist suggested that the sentencing was unduly lenient – no hard figures to back this up though.

  4. Plonkee – I am very glad you heard it as well, I couldn’t find it online so had begun to think I might have made it up.

    I did a search on BBC news to see if I could find it, however the only references seemed to be ones from last year singing the praises of how the rate of conviction in domestic abuse cases was going up…

    As to the low conviction rate – yes it is very low, but from my limited exposure to criminology there could be dozens of reasons for this. Domestic violence cases are always going to be subject to fickle victims, a lack of witnesses and emotional attachments. I think 1 in 5 convictions would be a very good rate, so 17% seems reasonable. I am always concerned when the media / police talk about having to increase the rate of convictions – this is easiest done by convicting innocent people…

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