Monday, July 29, 2013

Lazy journalism and reinforcing stereotypes

While looking for something else the other day I was reminded by Google that there are 17 known hate groups in Idaho.

The reference was in an otherwise delightful Forbes magazine profile of Idaho state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, the first African-American to be elected to the Idaho Legislature.
High in the story are these sentences:

       At this time, there are 18 known hate groups in Idaho. Last year, white supremacists held protest signs in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho with racist epitaphs (sic) such as ‘Honk if you want Idaho White’ and ‘Idaho for Whites. Mexico for Mexicans’.”

Idaho is an easy target, with its well-publicized history of open intolerance practiced by an ignorant few. However, here are a few statistics that these stories entirely left out:
  • According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 1,007 “active hate groups” in the United States.
  • The same organization produces of map showing the number of hate groups per state. Idaho ranks about in the middle, well behind some states like California (82), New York (38), Arizona (28) and nearly all of the Southern states.
  • And, yes, Idaho is home to more hate groups than any of its neighbors. (Wyoming has two and Utah has four – Washington is a close regional second with 16.)
My point? Too often journalists use statistics to reinforce a point they wish to make without providing relevant contextual data. It goes something like this: Idaho has a known history of hosting groups hostile to entire classes of people, therefore it is acceptable to use incomplete data if it supports the position that Idahoans are intolerant.
Clearly, one hate group is one too many and 17 hate groups are far too many. Idahoans should work tirelessly to stamp out intolerance and hate. But those facts don’t give lazy journalism a pass.
Of course, that information was important to the story. But a single additional sentence putting the data in context would have been good journalism. Instead, an Idaho stereotype is reinforced. (It should be noted that the story was published more than a year ago, and Idaho apparently now has one hate group fewer than it did at the time.)
The spunky Boise Weekly also ran a piece on the data, also leaving out any contextual information. To its credit, the newspaper did provide links to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s web site for the handful of people interested enough to pursue the details.

The Post Register is sometimes criticized for something similar – sacrificing context in the quest for brevity. The Forbes piece serves as a reminder to us that throwaway lines and incomplete data might make for compelling reading but they aren’t good journalism. 

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