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Brave Bureaucrat Releases Race Statistics

By Ben L. Kaufman · September 7th, 2005 · Media, Myself & I
Sleeper of the month was Eric Lichtblau's New York Times story on Aug. 24, printed below the fold on page 1 with a one-column headline. It detailed a new administration effort to suppress data that contradict Bush policies.

This one involves the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) survey showing that blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

Lichtblau also described how the nonpartisan BJS head lost his job after refusing to delete those data from a press release about the survey. None was issued, Lichtblau reported, and BJS posted the uncensored and unannounced survey on its Web site. Here, in part, is what BJS found:

· The likelihood of being stopped by police in 2002 did not differ significantly between white (8.7 percent), black (9.1 percent), and Hispanic (8.6 percent) drivers.

· During the traffic stop, police were more likely to carry out some type of search on a male (7.1 percent) than a female (1.8 percent), and more likely to carry out some type of search on a black (10.2 percent) or Hispanic (11.4 percent) than a white (3.5 percent). Searches could be of the person and/or vehicle, and the report didn't say for what officers were looking or why blacks and Hispanics were searched more often.

· Even so, most drivers stopped by police (84 percent) said they were stopped for a legitimate reason, and 88 percent said police behaved properly.

Go to www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs. Click on "What's New" and scroll down "Publications" until you find entries for April 2005. The survey is "Contacts between Police and the Public: Findings from the 2002 National Survey."

· · ·

Then there were two continuing, frustratingly incomplete stories.

First, Texas jurors said the painkiller Vioxx caused the heart attack that led to a patient's death. They awarded his widow $253.4 million. Merck, the maker of Vioxx, is expected to appeal the verdict and challenge the size of the award.

A Merck clinical study found unexpectedly high risks for some patients after feds approved the drug. Texas trial issues included how quickly Merck revealed those study results. My beef: Too many news stories referred to an "increased" chance of heart attack, stroke, etc. without saying increased from what to what.

A Merck researcher walked me through the study data reported in the March 17 New England Journal of Medicine, muttering, "How do I say statistics in English?"

He succeeded.

More than 2,500 people participated in Merck's post-approval three-year clinical trial. It was analyzed in 0-18 month and 19-36 month periods. Merck found essentially no difference between people who took the placebo or Vioxx in the 0-18 month period.

That changed in the 19-36 month period. Merck reported about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 263 patients given the placebo. However, among patients who received Vioxx during the same period, there was about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 70 patients. In short, for that 19-36 month period, Vioxx users faced more than three times the risk. During the entire 36-month clinical trial, patients taking Vioxx faced twice the risk of those given the placebo. Reporters could have told us all of that.

Now we need an informed media investigation of what and who define "acceptable risk" when no useful drug is risk-free.

Second, reporters covering Israel's Gaza evacuation loved the tagline, "Then Israeli bulldozers moved in, demolishing the homes." Reporters rarely explained that demolition made room for high-density apartments the Palestinian Authority wants to build.

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes
· Katrina. Destruction of New Orleans' protective wetlands should remain on the news media agenda. They aren't the only wetlands mindlessly damaged or threatened for profit. And I hope people remember that The New Orleans Times-Picayune and others anticipated the disaster with recent coverage of those lost islands and wetlands.

Here, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post nicely balanced the local styrene leak/evacuation and developing Katrina story. However, some Cincinnati broadcasters linked the "gas shortage" and Metro buses -- which don't use "gas." They're diesel-powered. The issue is refining capacity.

The Times-Picayune staff weathered Katrina but left when levees failed. Sharing distant, intact newsrooms, they covered the story of a lifetime, published online editions and didn't miss a day. Ironically, that might screw them at Pulitzer Prize time. Prize administrator Sig Gissler told me by e-mail, " ... online content is not eligible for entry in any category except the Public Service category -- in which all the resources of a newspaper can be used in the entry ... goes to the newspaper as a whole ... The rules can be changed by majority vote of the board ... The question of online content is among the journalism questions that the board discusses from time to time. The board does not meet again until November."

A decision to allow online content could cover 2005. It's up to the board.

TV/cable were predictable with familiar "live" hurricane coverage. When levees broke and civil society broke down, TV/cable fulfilled its promise with images that told the story. No one, however, had staff and access to tell the whole story of the Gulf Coast.

· The Enquirer, long under pressure to build female readership, recently lost three talented, visible female reporters. C.E. Hanifan had replaced Larry Nager as popular music critic, and her hiring fueled his sex/age discrimination suit. More visible was Maggie Downs, the "young professional" writer who had a Friday column. She's following others to a smaller Gannett paper in Palm Springs, Cal., where she can skydive all year. Cindi Andrews covered county governments and was tapped for promotion when she quit to edit the monthly Women's Business Cincinnati.

· Unfailingly upbeat Enquirer coverage of development around UC went overboard. The big business section headline was "UC surrounded by smart new buildings." It's not surrounded; no new buildings are on the north side. "Smart" is an editorial opinion, not a fact. Finally, that boost-don't-knock story lacked voices other than development advocates.

· The Enquirer cosponsors the Carl H. Lindner Award for Entrepreneurial and Civic Spirit. The lion lies down with the lamb.

· August can be the cruelest month. The usual suspects -- Congress, the President, state legislatures, Cincinnati City Council, CEOs, etc. -- are on vacation. If you're in trouble, you're the only story. Ask the Bobs.

· More Post bylines are appearing in The Enquirer. It's a longstanding trend that might accelerate as The Post heads for extinction and offers buyouts.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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