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January 28, 2008

NYT "Public Editor" Soft-Pedals "121 Murders" Vet Criticism

There is some criticism here, but not all that much. Hoyt seems to be holding out hope that the bogus "trend" presented in the story will turn out to be fake but accurate.

The Times made some missteps at the beginning of the series, and critics have pounced, accusing it of demonizing veterans and exaggerating the problem even as some mental health professionals have thanked the newspaper.

The first part, which dominated the top of Page One on Jan. 13, featured a photo montage of 24 young men, some in military uniform, some in prison garb. The article began with the story of Matthew Sepi, a 20-year-old plagued by nightmares from Iraq, who went looking for beer to help him sleep and wound up killing a gang member and wounding another with an AK-47 in a dangerous neighborhood.

“Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories,” the article said. “Taken together they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.”

The article said the newspaper had found 121 such cases, many of which appeared to involve “combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems.”

The Times was pointing out terrible examples of something the military itself acknowledges: large numbers of veterans are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with psychological problems. And, as the initial article said, a Pentagon task force found last year that the military mental health system was poorly prepared to deal with this wave of distress.

The Times was immediately accused — in The New York Post and the conservative blogosphere, and by hundreds of messages to the public editor — of portraying all veterans as unstable killers. It did not.

But, the first article used colorfully inflated language — “trail of death” — for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?

Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by The Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable. One involved a Navy Seabee accused of arranging her ex-husband’s murder during a bitter child custody battle, and another involved a soldier who was acquitted of reckless homicide in a car crash after a jury concluded that his blood alcohol level was below the legal limit and that many other accidents had happened on the same stretch of road.

Some readers wanted to know how the rate of homicides by veterans compared with the civilian rate. Several bloggers did back-of-the-envelope calculations and said the homicide rate for returning veterans was lower than the rate for the general population. So, what’s the problem, they wondered. I asked Martin T. Wells, a professor of statistical sciences at Cornell University, to take a stab at a comparative calculation. The homicide rate for returning combat veterans could be better or worse than the civilian rate, he determined, depending entirely on how many of the 1.6 million military personnel who have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars actually saw combat, a number the Pentagon does not have.

Ah. More statistical analysis is apparently necessary before presenting this as a "trend" or something to even bother writing about. It could just turn out that that statistical analysis -- to be done later -- saves the story.


More: Patterico notes that Hoyt's defense follows the Dan Rather model -- attacking the messenger as partisans.

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posted by Ace at 05:18 PM

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