Ethics Observations On A Case Study In Combining Bad Journalism With Bad Science

Yes, it’s the New York Times again. I use that paper for the majority of the Ethics Alarm unethical journalism posts for a few reasons. One is that the paper comes to my door every day, so I read a lot of articles that I might miss on the web.  Another is that the Times is the most successful and influential newspaper in the country,  and its work is more closely followed and more criticized than any other paper, and most news sources generally. The Times also advertises itself as the nation’s “paper of record,” placing itself on a pedestal with standards of integrity and reliability that it is obligated to meet….and does not. Finally, the paper is unacceptably biased in its political coverage and editorial product.

Today’s “Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread”  is far from then times at its worst. It is, however, unacceptable and unethical. I’m not even in disagreement with the piece’s main thesis, which is that the regions that have not imposed shelter at home restrictions on the public are at more risk of exploding Wuhan virus cases. That makes sense; that’s even obvious. However, the Times’s main tool in making a case was the map below, which it explained this way:

“Stay-at-home orders have nearly halted travel for most Americans, but people in Florida, the Southeast and other places that waited to enact such orders have continued to travel widely, potentially exposing more people as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates, according to an analysis of cellphone location data by The New York Times. The divide in travel patterns, based on anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people, suggests that Americans in wide swaths of the West, Northeast and Midwest have complied with orders from state and local officials to stay home.”

In the online article, that map is huge, easily five times the diagram above. This naturally suggests, and is meant to suggest, that is overwhelming, science and research-based proof, which it is not. I saw it immediately; so did Ann Althouse, who wrote,

What’s the problem if people are going out for a 3-mile walk? The data the NYT is using may have a rough correlation to whether people are getting together in groups, but I know I go out and get in an average of 3.5 miles, and I’m not doing anything that’s not within Governor Evers’s rules, which say:

Individuals may leave their home or residence… To engage in outdoor activity, including visiting public and state parks, provided individuals… [at all times as reasonably possible maintain social distancing of at least six (6) feet from any other person]. Such activities include, by way of example and without limitation, walking, biking, hiking, or running. Individuals may not engage in team or contact sports such as by way of example and without limitation, basketball, ultimate frisbee, soccer, or football, as these activities do not comply with Social Distancing Requirements. Playgrounds are closed.

To get to a state park, you’ve got to drive your car, but that’s just you in your car. You’re not exposing yourself or others when you’re in that interior space. Does the NYT really want to promote the idea that we’re covidiots if we don’t stay inside our homes?

She also tracked down this comment on the Times article (Thanks, Ann for picking through the ideological muck; I can’t do it)

I’m a Fed, but live in rural Oklahoma. I normally travel 33 miles each way to work in Oklahoma City M-F, but we’re on telework order, so that part is down to zero. However, most of you can’t imagine the distances we have out here. The nearest decent grocery store is 16 miles away, and a Walmart is about 22. So, if we go out food shopping once every two weeks, that could be 44 miles for that alone. The maps therefore are missing one critical element (which is admittedly VERY hard to compute), and that would be “Average Essential Travel Distance”. That should be the denominator in a ratio, with the numerator being “Average Miles Traveled”. To be fair, I do statistics for a living, and I wouldn’t even begin to know how to estimate that denominator, other than to ask a sample of individuals to take a guess at it.

This, and other aspects of the data that I’m sure many here will notice, make the chart, and the research, what would be called in a court case “junk science.” It’s bad research, begun with a specific result and objective in mind, which is how you end up with so many of the sensational politically weaponized studies and polls that convince the naive, the under-educated, and those inclined to confirmation bias in a certain direction, which is, unfortunately, almost all of us. Yet here is the New York Times, our “paper of record,” using this flawed and misleading chart to support its reporting.

To me, that’s signature significance. A trustworthy news source would not do that.

Some other observations:

  • I didn’t give the Times permission to track my phone data, anonymous or not.

45 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On A Case Study In Combining Bad Journalism With Bad Science

  1. This must be the same data that prompted Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to issue a new “stay at home” order today which supersedes his previous “stay at home” order from Monday.
    “Lee said the mandate was necessary because there was clear evidence from vehicle traffic and cell phone data that some residents were beginning to disregard his earlier safer at home order, calling such actions dangerous.”
    The article goes on to say that:
    “It is unclear whether Lee’s latest action will demonstrably alter Tennesseans’ daily lives, given the latest mandate does not narrow down a long list of acceptable activities. Outdoor activities such as golf, tennis, swimming and other recreational sports are still allowed, as long as individuals aren’t congregating. There are no limitations on Tennesseans’ ability to drive anywhere.”
    I guess he should have just asked, “Pretty please?”

  2. My first introduction to this article was on twitter, where quite predictably it was being used by loyal democrats as a club against red voters.

    “Now, put a voting pattern map on this”

    “Of course those are naturally rebellious districts”

    “Well, yes those are conservative areas…less concerned with social responsibility”

    • It’s a distraction. The New York Times has a problem. New York City under the Wuhan coronavirus is, to be blunt, a complete disaster. If you wanted to build a machine for spreading a highly contagious virus, you couldn’t ask for better than the subway system. Still, they can’t shut it down, because that’s how the essential workers get to work. They’re stuck – it’s baked into the design of their way of life, a way of life the NYT has heavily promoted as a model for all to emulate. A better way to live, run by better politics and filled with better voters.

      Yet today it’s a nightmare. It’s one thing to demand people overlook muggings, sky-high rent, and homeless people defecating on the sidewalk, but when the bodies start stacking up the gig is well and truly up. People are fleeing the city, literally fleeing for their lives.

      How could this be? How could people be fleeing the city that lives so much better, that knows so much better? So the NYT needs a distraction. So recently they’ve been running stuff like this misleading map, along with articles about how the odd pandemic is totally worth it to have a lower carbon footprint and a good Ethiopian fusion restaurant within walking distance, articles fantasizing about how much worse it’s going to be in rural areas, any minute now, just you wait. Anything to fill the pages except cold, hard reality.

  3. I am in rural CA and it is 7.5 miles to my local Post Office where my mail is delivered. I drive nearly 2 miles to get to a public maintained road. I am not alone in this situation. Why does NYT think 2 miles is significant?

    • I’d bet when they were adjusting their sliding rule, dropping the limit to a few hundred feet below 2 miles made most of America “red” by their definition, and they needed to place just low enough of a limit to make a point, but just high enough to isolate the “red” to the people they want to vilify.

      The leftist media has shown us, quite thoroughly, especially since 2016, but as early as Bush’s 2nd term, how they do not care about anything other than skewing stories to tell a slanted narrative.

      Never trust them again.

  4. As a current student of a local college auditing some professional development courses I chose to take advantage of my “student ” status and subscribe to the online publications of a few news sources that I haven’t actually read in any real depth for many years, the New York Times just one that I chose. The student subscription cost me a whole $4.00 a month. After nearly a month of browsing and reading the New York Times I quickly canceled the subscription before they billed me for another month of their drivel and indoctrination, it really wasn’t worth that whopping $4.00 a month price tag and I refuse to support an organization like that with my dollars.

    The New York Times is absolutely terrible, its bias, its propaganda, and its indoctrination is transparently obvious throughout the articles unless you are absolutely blind and actively trying to reinforce your own bigoted bias. In my opinion the New York Times is actually a hazard to the public being accurately informed about national news of any kind; an enemy of the people is pretty accurate.

    The new York Times is a terrible publication, this is NOT what a journalistic news organization is supposed to be. I don’t trust anything the New York Times publishes regardless of its slant, because there always seems to an underlying political bias driving the “conclusions” that they shouldn’t be making in the first place.

    Give the New York Times enough time and they will manipulate that COVID-19 map look nearly the same as this map from the Electoral College election in 2016 to smear Trump supporters for the spread of COVID-19.

    Yes, I think the New York Times is that low.

    • SW – I have free access to the NYT in Toronto. FREE through my local library just with a library card. FREE full online access. How is that reasonable?
      While there are many reasons to read it, and there I some days I get enjoyment out of it, I just cannot bring myself to read it every day. I still want to keep what hair I have and not scare my wife.
      Regardless, I applaud you for continuing your education.

      There are so many reasonable explanations why the map looks like it does, but so many do not fit the preferred narrative.

    • Steve writes:

      The New York Times is absolutely terrible, its bias, its propaganda, and its indoctrination is transparently obvious throughout the articles unless you are absolutely blind and actively trying to reinforce your own bigoted bias. In my opinion the New York Times is actually a hazard to the public being accurately informed about national news of any kind; an enemy of the people is pretty accurate.

      This statement interests me because it is so direct and definitive, yet there is no interpretive pay-off. This sort of statement illustrates a kind of seeing in which the outer contour is recognized & described, yet there is no attempt to explain, nor understand, what one is seeing, what it is, why it is that way and how it came to be. Therefore this illustrates, again, a tendency (an obsessive talent?) in seeing *surface* but failing to *understand* what it means.

      Now, why is this? Well the answer is actually quite simple: interpretation is actually quite dangerous. To see, to define, to understand, lead often to conclusions, yet the real danger is in *conclusiveness*. What interests me in Steve’s kind of statement is in its adamancy — like a hammer striking a welder’s anvil — but for all its furiousness there is no interpretive content, like a boiler giving off steam with a loud whistle.

      Terrible why? Why biased? Biased to what? Propaganda for what and to whose benefit? Who stands behind the fabrication of this *propaganda*? To what end? If there is indoctrination there has to be doctrine. And what is that doctrine? ‘Transparently obvious’? Wait! That implies that what is seen is transparent, but moreover that the one who is seeing has a mental *clear light*. But this is (transparently!) not the case because no *seeing* nor any level of interpretation is suggested. I love the phrase ‘absolutely blind’! Again, it implies that *sight* is possible, indeed that the writer has it. But that is obviously false! Therefore, the *declaration* is like the clamping force on a bottle which shuts the bottle even as it declares it is open. Or perhaps the hermetic on a door keeping it closed for all that it says it is open (Oh you get the picture, pardonnez mes métaphores …)

      A place to start — if one is interested in the origins of the NY Intellectual Establishment is Partisan Review:

      Partisan Review (PR) was a small circulation quarterly “little magazine” dealing with literature, politics, and cultural commentary published in New York City. The magazine was launched in 1934 by the Communist Party, USA–affiliated John Reed Club of New York and was initially part of the Communist political orbit. Growing disaffection on the part of PR’s primary editors began to make itself felt, however, and the magazine abruptly suspended publication in the fall of 1936. When the magazine reemerged late in 1937, it came with additional editors and new writers who advanced a political line deeply critical of Stalin’s USSR.

      By the 1950s the magazine had evolved towards a moderate social democratic and staunchly anti-Communist perspective and was generally supportive of American foreign policy. Partisan Review received covert funding from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the 1950s and 1960s as part of the agency’s efforts to shape intellectual opinion during the Cold War. The journal moved its offices to the campus of Rutgers University in 1963, then to the campus of Boston University in 1978, gradually losing its cultural relevance. The final issue of the publication appeared in April 2003.

      Here Ruth R. Wisse (Commentary Magazine, 1987) has an article titled The New York (Jewish) Intellectuals. There is no way — no way that I can conceive — to understand why the NYTs is the NYTs and what influence it has, and the NY Intellectual Establishment has, if one does not devote oneself in some degree to the study of Jewish intellectual affairs in 20th century America.

      However, there is something very interesting that has to be said: interpretation and *conclusiveness* must stop at the gates of a Forbidden City, and like the angel with the flaming sword guarding the exit from Eden, so too there are similar *fiery swords* that prohibit any hermeneutics on the topic of Jewish intellectuals and their effect within American society. It is a conversation that must occur, and yet it cannot occur.

      This leads of course to the core of what I wish to express (and I am just as confused about it as anyone). We have to locate that which disallows and prohibits ‘intellectual freedom’ and yet at the same time we ourselves agree to establish and enforce those limits which render us intellectually unfree. I am not just making a statement about how Jews control what is thought and said about them, that would be itself a superficial reading, but rather how it has come about that our entire intellectual perspective, our entire *platform* and stance — literally I sometimes think the ‘limits of what we allow ourselves to perceive’ — is under a kind of *lockdown*. In that lockdown one is confined to a surface vision with no or little capacity to consider ‘causal chains’.

      It is really a very peculiar problem. I suggest it be surmounted! 🙂

        • How about just The Sea Lion? Leona Marina?

          I just don’t have much connection to the sea though. Salt water make me feel sticky.

          Sealioning (also spelled sea-lioning and sea lioning) is a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility and sincerity.

          This does not apply though, not close enough. True, I always ask questions, but asking questions (even as a rhetorical device) is a fine and noble activity. If you don’t ask the question, how could you ever get an answer? All the questions I asked apply to a larger situation. It is *fair game*.

          What is somewhat cruel, I admit, is asking you questions that you will never be able to answer. But then I see *you* as a plurality, as I always say. You are an *emblem*.

          It sounds pretentious — it really is sort of pretentious — but the questions I ask are questions America needs to ask itself. Really . . .

          • Cyrano de Bergerac invited all insults, and improved them! I shall do my part as well:

            Since I have aversion to salt-water, but love fresh agua dulce, might I be thought of as a fresh-water leech of some sort?

            A ‘predatory worm’ [ouch!]

            There is a great deal to work with here, just think of the possibilities!

            Though I would rather be seen as a symbiote:

            symbiote (plural symbiotes) (ecology) an organism in a partnership with another such that each profits from their being together.

            If you do not admit that I have some profit-function my feelings will genuinely be hurt?

        • You make a very good point. Because ‘enemies of the people’ have to be confronted and removed. Though I guess converting them from their ways is an option.

          But what ultimately we are dealing with is ideas. What those ideas are, and how they express themself, and how more powerful intellects use ideas: that is what has to be looked into if one identifies the Times as ‘enemy’.

        • joeystigz wrote, “I’d recommend just ignoring anyone that uses phrases like “enemy of the people” “

          How about you and Alizia “Sealioning” Tyler just ignore me; that’s a behavior I could respect.

          • But that’s no fun! If everyone ignored everyone else it makes the world boring.

            The world of ideas is an internal pressure-cooker. And the events we are forced to deal with, an external pressure-cooker.

            The temperature got turned up . . .

            What will you be cooked into when time and event’s bell rings and you’re ‘done’?

  5. This map also shows where the gaps in the cellphone coverage are.

    Of course there are other ways ‘the usual suspects’ are being demonized. Men are being criticized for not social distancing as much as women. Men are going out more, yes. But why? For complicated reasons, I sat in a Chinese restaurant 2 weeks ago and watched the take-out traffic. Every 2-3 minutes, a man came in to pick up the take-out for his family (these were not single orders). Not a single woman came through the door in an hour. Men seem to be the majority of the coronavirus victims. People are wondering why.

    • In spite of affirmative action, police and fire operations are predominantly male and they are exempt from stay-at-home orders. Maybe in NYC a 2-mile trip is significant, but out where the rubber meets the road it is just another day.

  6. I’m confused. If rural people’s essential travel time is higher, why aren’t more counties red across the entire United States, particularly in the Midwest? Are the colors weighted by number of people? Maximum distance traveled? Average distance traveled? Frequency of excursions greater than 2 miles?

    “When people stopped traveling more than two miles” is an incredibly vague description. I’d like to know exactly what mathematical formula they applied to that data in order to sort these counties into one category or another.

    /checks article

    Okay, average distance traveled on weekdays. That probably mostly reflects how quickly businesses decided or were urged to suspend operations or move employees to remote operations. The data may not mean exactly what it’s said to mean, but it’s not meaningless.

    I am curious, though, how they measure “average distance”, because with a high enough resolution, you could track me going for miles just walking circles in my apartment. I’m assuming they aren’t counting steps.

    • EC – I think that a large group of residents in that geo swath are like me at this time of year – we keep a @!*#$ load of supplies in the pantry in case of weather and while we are not fanatic preppers, we can shelter in place a lot longer than regular folk who can walk (what’s that?) or take a short trip a reasonable distance to get supplies on an almost daily basis.

      Of course, now that gas is so inexpensive, we are not supposed to buy and use it. Such a tease.

      (ps. I have the benefit of a city and a rural home and have lived rurally for some time this year, avoiding so many issues but also disrupting any data history I may have left behind).

  7. These are some of the same people who smeared Christians for allegedly failing to follow “social distancing” guidelines, claiming conservative religious Americans were “anti-science” and at fault for the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus.

  8. I trust no news source that offers anything other than who, what, when and where. They can keep their why answers to themselves. I do love reading well constructed opinions when adequately presented as such and offer an opportunity to comment on those opinions.

    Will the NYT extrapolate the information from their map to conclude that supplies should be reallocated to areas that can be expected to spike in cases? Their map clearly shows NY and NJ as well as Massachusettes and Michigan are highly compliant so they are less likely to have high rates of infection and thus less likely to need ventilators , masks, and PPE.

    I live in western MD and the nearest grocery is over 3 miles away. We also have state parks that are many miles away from concentrations of residences. Infection rates should correlate positively with population densities not the distance people typically travel

    • I did some research on data tracking. Perhaps you are not fully aware but these phone devices, and all computers and such, are data-gathering fields. The Google phone is described as an invasive tool into the life of the possessor of it. But so are all phones. Artificial intelligence is used to analyze even things you’d not consider relevant, and to turn this data into information that is bought and sold by third-parties.

      The NYTs. in its articles about tracking US Secret Service agents (to show how this tracking info could be accessed and used) revealed that phone tracking data is legally available if you pay a company for it. They might not know your name but they can see all the movements of a particular phone. For example, exiting and entering a specific house, or supermarket, or office building, and showing the routes driven.

    • I also wonder if they only paid for the data from one carrier and this is biased depending on what carriers are more prevalent in different areas.

  9. The biggest lesson (besides the one you highlight) is that I have now learned to leave my cell phone at home. Or perhaps safer and more convenient, take it with me but turn it off unless I absolutely need it. Or perhaps an even better idea for those sick of being tracked — get a burner phone from Wal Mart like a person on a limited budget (or, need I add, a criminal).

    Pathetic privacy-violating assholes. This crisis is going to be used against us to violate more and more rights. We all know it, and this is further proof.

  10. Asking how people have changed their travel habits is a better question than asking how far they are traveling. There’s a much better map (but not perfect of course) floating around that shows changes in driving habits – so for example if you used to drive 30 miles/day and are still driving 30/miles a day that area of the map shows up darker. Still paints a pretty bad picture for southern, mountain, and the most western of the midwest states (Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas).

    • Both maps are from the same ridiculous article.

      Travel habits don’t tell us crap, when the measurement we’re supposed to be concerned with is people in close interaction with other people.

      Both maps are interesting but meaningless for the point trying to be made about “whose trying to contain this virus and who isn’t”. But I highly suspect the real point is “don’t pay attention to useful information, just believe us when this shows how the rubes behave compared to the enlightened ones”.

      • I think saying these maps don’t tell us crap is as misguided as saying they tell us everything we need to know. The correlation between the stay at home orders & the change in driving habits is pretty striking. Data like this should give us hunches that we use to further investigate what’s going on. I suppose we’ll find out whether this map was predictive or not.

    • so for example if you used to drive 30 miles/day and are still driving 30/miles a day that area of the map shows up darker. Still paints a pretty bad picture for southern, mountain, and the most western of the midwest states (Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas).

      It wouldn’t be a stretch to posit that people in rural areas drive 30 miles to necessary destinations and don’t frequent many “unnecessary” destinations to begin with. An order to stay at least six feet away from people, to rural Americans, doesn’t demand a noticeable change in daily behavior (unlike a New Yorker, to whom it means “leave New York”) whereas a command to cut travel distance in, say, half is to command starvation and death. Sun Tzu says that one should be careful never to give a command which one is not sure will be followed. I’m watching all of this with a strange glee.

      It’s gratifying to have said the world is going to tear itself down and to then watch as it begins doing so. Once you get well past the point of no return, the certainty that there’s nothing you could possibly do to stop it is freeing. A burden I could barely bear was lifted away, and now I feel like I could fly.

      Would it be ethical to do the “Singin’ in the Rain” titular number, complete with dance, in the streets amongst riots and looting?

      • I think there’s probably some truth to that, but very large portions of the midwest and west coast states are rural, so one would expect to see similar changes or non-changes in those places.

        • I fear we could “what if” this out forever. Consider ‘rural’ as something of a spectrum (I’ve seen the far ends of it personally). If the grocery store is 30 miles away, you might be willing to make weekly trips ordinarily and upgrade to monthly in light of a birdemic. If it’s 50, you might go monthly to begin with. In either case, stocking up just a little bit more could be an option, a function of how much you can fit in your vehicle, or related to amount and frequency of income. What I especially can’t account for is the vast cultural differences between the Midwest and the South. Midwesterners are straightforward enough, but Southerners have a certain curious way about them which seems to only be explicable to natives. It would be remiss to not note that the map has such clean and sharp distinctions between these two independently-demarcated places. This one alone is truly curious, and I hope that a Southerner could speak to it. Indeed, there are enough variables in play to write a paragraph.

  11. Two miles doesn’t get me off of the dirt road, onto pavement, much less into town. And it’s even farther than that if I don’t want to shop at the gas station.

  12. I’m confused. Aren’t all the red (bad) states and areas essentially former Confederate and slave and cotton plantation states with large populations of people of color? Aren’t these the important electoral college states determined by whether or not people of color approve of the Democratic nominee for president?

    • Wait, is the point of the map systemic racism? People of color have to travel more because they’re discriminated against and poorer.

      When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

  13. Yet one more indication of the NYT mindset. Barbaro is a NYT journalist.

    After experiencing severe ratio-ing for his “observation”, Barbaro subsequently removed the tweet stating “A lot of misinterpretation of my (not well-enough contextualized) tweet on this so taking it down.”

    Unrelated observation: In the Barber of Seville, a purportedly drunk Count Almaviva infuriates Dr. Bartolo by consistently mispronouncing his name. One of the mispronunciations? “Dr. Barbaro” – or “barbarous”.

  14. The NYT was not looking for accuracy. The data used to make the map were either manipulated to reach their conclusion and/or they made it up. Either, the visual had its impact. They were looking for a conclusion that people in the South are Republicans who are stupid, selfish, and don’t care about the common good.


    • “The data used to make the map were either manipulated to reach their conclusion and/or they made it up”

      What are you basing this conclusion on? The data comes from a data intelligence company, not the NYT. The map Jack highlighted is not great and has limitations, but they say as much in the article:

      “It cannot predict where outbreaks will spread, and it does not track how many interactions people had while they were traveling. Not all travel is problematic: A person driving for a few miles to pick up groceries would not be violating stay-at-home orders. And people in cities can infect others without traveling far.”

      • Because the disclaimer in the article is window dressing. In fact, the hotspots should be in NYC, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Why does it look like it is in the South? To promote the idea that Southerns are idiots, or in this case, covidiots. It is bad data, bad analysis, bad conclusion, and stupid reporting.


        • so the NYT conspired with a 3rd party data intelligence firm in order to deliberately mislead people into thinking that southerners are idiots by creating fake data, then admitted that the data has limitations in the article as a way to divert attention from their fake data scheme? That’s not a very good take.

  15. I do wonder about Florida, bathed in the blood of the suffering, though. How many of those cellphone users are Northeasterns who winter in Florida and how many of them recently fled the disaster that is NYC to safe environs of West Palm Beach, etc., to maintain social distancing in their beach condos?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.