“Data journalism” is supposed to have been all the rage in the press recently. Why, then, do so many reporters keep ignoring crucial statistics when covering economic and other trends? Several major news organizations have combined to provide two examples of how much needless confusion these oversights can create.
The first instance concerns illegal immigration, and specifically the ongoing heart-breaking story of children fleeing rampant gang-related violence in Central America. Last week, The New York Times carried an article by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author that described a promising ray of light in this grim picture. According to author Sonia Nazario, new U.S. government programs have been largely responsible for “a remarkable reduction in violence” in the neighborhoods in Honduras in which they’ve been introduced. And as a result, even though the situation in the rest of the country remains dire, “fewer children are coming to the United States from Honduras.”
Further, Nazario writes, this success “offers a striking rebuke to the rising isolationists in American politics. A Pew Research Center poll in April found that most Americans think the United States should ‘deal with its own problems’ while others deal with theirs “as best they can,” a sentiment that’s at the core of Donald J. Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan and ‘build a wall’ campaign. Many seem to have lost their faith in American power.”
To her credit, Nazario has done extensive local reporting on the issue, and the encouraging developments she has apparently found on the ground deserve to be taken seriously. At the same time, the sources she cites for the numbers she presents all have a strong stake in portraying the aid programs as a success – specifically, America’s ambassador to this forlorn country, U.S. aid and narcotics control officials along with contractors administering these programs, and local Honduran recipients of the funds and other resources.
This possibility alone should have tipped her or her editors off to that some independent verification was needed. And it was all the more essential because the U.S. government data has just reported that, over the past fiscal year, the number of child migrants and entire families from Honduras caught trying to enter the United States illegally is up, not down. (Hat tip to The Washington Times for breaking this story.)
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, has stated that for the entirety of fiscal 2015, a total of 16,080 Honduran illegal border crossers were apprehended – 10,671 “family units” and 5,409 unaccompanied children. Through this July – two months before the end of the current fiscal year – the total jumped to 23,270, or by a total of 44.71 percent. The number of family units hit 15,142 (41.90 percent higher) and the number of unaccompanied children reached 8,128 (50.27 percent higher).
It’s possible that the total number of Honduran leavers is down, and that most aren’t caught. But the burden of proof is on Nazario and The Times to make this case.
Another recent development undercutting Nazario’s thesis: Late last month, the Obama administration announced (as reported in The New York Times) “a substantial expansion of a program to admit Central American refugees to the United States, conceding that its efforts to protect migrants fleeing dangerous conditions had left too many people with no recourse.”
Nazario could claim both that the administration is simply bowing to the continuing humanitarian tragedies in El Salvador and Guatemala, where the programs she touts haven’t been introduced. But the president’s decision certainly doesn’t seem to reflect much optimism concerning their potential. She could also point to her observation that the Honduran programs have run into opposition in Congress, and contend that the president decided to take the path of least resistance. Yet lawmakers are even less likely to support more admissions.
What is clear is that she either chose not to seek out statistics that undercut her hopeful narrative, or that she didn’t know they exist. Neither possibility should inspire confidence in her credibility.
The second example of failing to consult the data was provided by The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, which recently published dueling articles on the state of American manufacturing and its recent record of coping with Chinese competition. Their special focus was the same, too – Hickory, North Carolina, a supposedly typical long-time American manufacturing center.
The Journal piece seemed to focus more on Hickory’s continuing challenges; the Reuters article “accentuated the positive.” Both articles provided plenty of numbers about manufacturing job loss and recent recovery, too. But neither publication told readers anything about the most important Hickory- and manufacturing-related figures of all – those on production. For without healthy levels of production, healthy levels of employment (however you define that term) are impossible to sustain over any length of time. And the figures show that, in Hickory, both in manufacturing overall and in furniture production (the area’s signature sector), activity remains severely depressed.
A good baseline year is 2002. That was the first full year of Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization, and therefore the first full year in which it enjoyed substantial immunity from U.S. laws and other policies aimed at combating its still widespread predatory trade practices.
In 2002, furniture and related industries comprised fully 30 percent of the Hickory metropolitan area’s total manufacturing output (after adjusting for inflation), with a total output of $1.339 billion. The latest furniture-specific figures available for Hickory only go up to 2013, but they show a sharp inflation-adjusted production decline – to just $816 million. In fact, the hit to Hickory’s real furniture output (39.10 percent) was greater than for total furniture production in American metropolitan areas (31.03 percent).
Hickory’s furniture performance looks better since 2009. From that recession year through 2013, the sector’s real production rose by 26.71 percent. That’s more than three times faster than the rate for all of America’s metro areas (7.73 percent).
But contrary to the Reuters piece, this achievement hasn’t translated into a notable broader manufacturing upswing in the region. From 2009 to 2014, overall U.S. Metro area manufacturing output advanced by 10.69 percent in real terms. For Hickory and environs, the real growth was only 9.45 percent.
Like Nazario in Honduras, the reporters who worked on these Hickory manufacturing stories clearly spent considerable time in the area surveying the manufacturing scene. And since the data is a little dated, no one should rule out the chance that Hickory’s manufacturing output has experienced a true surge since then. But that would mean that industry in Hickory has escaped the fate of industry nation-wide. Because around that time, after-inflation production growth in America began slowing dramatically. Indeed, for most of this period, it’s been in recession.
Reality certainly is too complicated to be reduced to numbers alone, and data itself can be methodologically flawed, incomplete, out of date – and intentionally distorted. But used properly and with integrity, data can be a useful check that can prevent simple anecdotes from being confused with genuine trends. So although journalists shouldn’t be slaves even to the very best numbers available, there’s no reason or excuse to ignore them.