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.