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Washington Post’s OIS report: Misleading spin, omitted statistics

A tool that could have shed light on a crucial aspect of the relationship between government and governed instead sullied the conversation with misleading spin

By Robert C. J. Parry

To its significant credit, the Washington Post has devoted much time and energy over the last year to assembling a database of fatal police shootings. By their tally, some 998 Americans were shot to death by police under all variety of circumstances in 2015. That is double the previous high total reported by the FBI, a fact that unveils an unquestionable gap in government statistics management. It is somewhat remarkable that no government entity accurately tracks this data. However, inasmuch as such statistics come partnered with Disraeli’s lies and damned lies, the reluctance of law enforcement to provide unethical activists with a tool chest of numbers to twist is not unsurprising.

And, as if on cue, the Post has proven that fear well founded. A tool that could have shed light on (arguably) the most crucial aspect of the relationship between government and governed was instead (though not unexpectedly) obfuscated and sullied the conversation with misleading spin and blatant omission.

When it comes to judging police use of force, the most important factor is it’s reasonableness: that is, the context of the use of force and the perceptions of all involved. Was the suspect armed or did he appear to be armed? How far away was he? Did the officer give the suspect a chance to comply? Was that even possible? Were there other options available? Even with nearly a thousand lethal police shootings last year, the number of shootings (lethal or otherwise) by officers is a miniscule fraction of all encounters police have with citizens. Thus, these factors are crucial to understanding what sets a given use-of-force encounter apart from all the others.

And, these factors are exactly what the Post blatantly avoids on both a macro and micro level. Take the macro, for example, The Post‘s web page devoted to this project contains the following statement:

Race remains the most volatile flash point in any accounting of police shootings. Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year.

Nowhere does the Post find room to inform readers that black men compose 40% of those who’ve kill police officers over the last 10 years, also a disproportionate rate (though less well-defined, the rates for assaults on officers are similar). The reader must dig into the Post‘s own data to find that blacks were less than 27% of the total killed. That is, they bear a disproportionately smaller share of those killed by police than their share of the threat environment.

But why let facts get in the way of the story? This isn’t to say the shootings of unarmed suspects are insignificant, but the context of them is of equal significance.

Perhaps the reason the Post ignores these factors on a macro level is that they omit them on a micro level. The Post‘s penultimate story on their accounting project was stained by breath-taking spin and omissions. Using the last offier-involved killing of the year as a story frame, it begins thusly:

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Las Vegas police officers cornered Keith Childress Jr., who was wanted for a number of violent felonies. They opened fire on the black 23-year-old after he refused to drop the object in his hands, which turned out not to be a gun but a cellphone.

That’s fairly concerning. Cornering a man and shooting him simply because he wouldn’t drop his cell phone. Surely there must be more to it? Well, fully 618 words later (in a 1058-word story) the Post gets around to adding these minor details:

Over the course of about two minutes, Childress ignored 24 commands by the officers, [a department spokesman] said, all the while obscuring his right hand.

So they didn’t just “corner” a black man and shoot him because he has a cell phone. They communicated with him. Extensively. The Post later notes that a body cam video of the shooting shows Childress advancing on the officers even as they screamed at him not to do so. But, despite that same video capturing all 24 of the shouted warnings, the Post some how forgot to tell you that several of the warnings included specific commands to “drop the gun.”

And, strangely, Post reporters Sandhya Somashekhar and Steven Rich provided no link to the video, despite linking to one of another unrelated incident.

How difficult would it be to write a more fully accurate opening paragraph? Let’s try it!

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Las Vegas police officers surrounded Keith Childress Jr., who was wanted for a number of violent felonies. After he ignored 24 commands to comply drop the object in his hands, such as “drop the gun,” they opened fire on the black 23-year-old. The object turned out not to be a gun but a cellphone. Body camera video of the incident captured all 24 commands, including urgent orders that he not advance on the officers, which the video shows he did immediately before officers shot him.

Wow! Now, I only have a journalism degree from a small liberal arts school, but that didn’t seem very hard after all. And it includes all kinds of additional fact things. But, somehow, the Post just couldn’t squeeze such detail in with the narrative du jour. Why bury critical facts? Why omit that the officers made very clear to Childress that they thought he had a gun? Why not provide complete context for disproportionate numbers?

Why indeed.

Multiply those omissions and misrepresentations by a few thousand incidents published in a few million papers, and you might end up with people marching in the streets for non-existent injustice. Or something.

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