Narrative in search of a statistic

I originally intended to cover a few more topics before coming back sexual assault statistics, but with the the release of the Columbia Journalism Review report and the Nungesser lawsuit (as well as mattress graduation) since my last post, I had a few more post topics.  The first of which deals with problem of trying to find statistics that fit a particular narrative.

By and large, I thought the CJR report was quite detailed and it seems like they certainly did their homework.  There is, however, one ironic little tidbit in it.  For a piece in which they rather thoroughly document Rolling Stone’s seeming inability to fact check, the authors themselves screw up their fact checking.  Here is the relevant section:

Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, “It’s going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault,” said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely’s sources.

The problem being that if you click their citation you will find no such reference to a 2-8% range.  Rather, the linked paper lists a 2-10% range.  As readers will know, the 2-8% range actually comes from here1.  I get the impression that they had a certain narrative that they wanted to tell and went in search of the statistic they could drop in.  They mixed their sources up because, at the end of the day, they weren’t really reading the studies.  Had they done so, they might have realized that both studies represent little more than a floor on the false reporting rates rather than an actual range.  That didn’t matter though.  They knew what they wanted to write and just needed a story statistic to slot in – any old one would do.

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  1. For fun, feel free to ask yourself why Lisak would be an author of a paper that stated a 2-8% range in 2009 and then switch it up a year later to 2-10% despite no knew data to justify the increase