Man Without Qualities

Thursday, August 26, 2004

"Bothersome" Media Behavior

All else being equal, every social scientist, bureaucrat and researcher would prefer to have data earlier rather than later, right? If one can have the same data earlier - with no change in the reliability of that data - one's better off, one can do more, one's job is made easier. Right? Apparently not to the people the Associated Press [UPDATE: See "update" note below] interviews today in connection with the Census Bureau's release of its annual report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States (2003). Those people are mostly concerned that the data has been released earlier than it was in previous years. In fact, the AP article is mostly concerned with presenting the timing of this release as a kind of "tortious infliction of social data:" Eleven out of the total of eighteen paragraphs in the AP article are devoted to unsubstantiated speculation about the Report's early release. This is supposedly important and timely data - but not a single word is quoted from anyone expressing satisfaction over having the data sooner rather than later. One interviewee actually says that he finds the early release "bothersome." But early release without reliability costs cannot be "bothersome" except to a political partisan mostly focused on a desired election result, and not focused on the value of the data. That rather obvious fact is not discussed by the AP.

The New York Times' own article on the Report is better than the AP effort, and restricts itself to three reasonable paragraphs at the end respecting the relatively early release. But the Times does retail the Democratic criticism of the timing and includes not a single kind word from any user of the data praising its appearing sooner rather than later.

An aside: there is one howling inconsistency between this Times' article ("For campaign advisers to Senator Kerry, who have been striving to turn attention away from the bitter controversy over his Vietnam war record and toward economic issues, the new numbers were a welcome gift.") and another Times article on its front page ("The Kerry campaign continued to try to keep the [Swift boat] issue alive."). So many agendas, so many Timespersons trying in so many ways to spin the news in favor of Kerry-Edwards, that kind of thing is bound to happen. Unlike the Times, the New York Post pulls the two threads together:

[L]ike a senator scoring points in a debate, Kerry seems determined to try to have the last word, and right now, his team is crowing that it has successfully spun the story to blame the anti-Kerry ads as a sneaky Bush tactic. Republicans say they couldn't care less ? the media may be focused on that, but what real people see is that a shockingly large number of men who served with Kerry in Vietnam think he's unfit to be president. After all, 264 oppose him and just a few dozen back him.

Returning to today's Census Bureau report, here are some considerations (from the Senate Joint Economic Committee) not discussed by either the AP or the Times::

According to the Census Bureau, its poverty thresholds are not intended to be used as a complete description of what families need to live.

The poverty estimates shown in the Census report are based solely on money income before taxes and ?do not include the value of non-cash benefits such as food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, public housing, and employer-provided fringe benefits (p. 1) - and do not include many of the effects of recent tax relief, such as refundable tax credits.

Alternative and broader measures of poverty tell a different story than the more narrow headline data. In 2002, for example, the inclusion of capital gains and non-cash benefits reduced the poverty rate from 12.1 percent to 8.2 percent.

The new report from the Census Bureau confirms the cyclical nature of its poverty data. Poverty rates began to increase in 2000 as the economy began to fall into recession. In contrast, inflation-adjusted after-tax income actually increased in 2003 by more than 4 percent. It has increased by 8.6 percent since the end of the recession in 2001.

As a percentage of the total population, the number of people in the U.S. without health insurance in 2003 was not significantly different than data throughout the 1990s. It is interesting to note that the number of uninsured increased throughout the 1990s, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of total population.

The number of uninsured as a percentage of total population recently peaked in 1998 at 16.3 percent. The latest Census report shows that 15.6 percent of the population was without health insurance coverage in 2003. According to the Census Bureau, ?Health insurance coverage is likely to be underreported on the Current Population Survey (CPS). While underreporting affects most, if not all, surveys, underreporting of health insurance coverage on the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) appears to be a larger problem than in other national surveys that ask about insurance (p. 52).

[For more information about health insurance coverage is in The Complex Challenge of the Uninsured. The full report can be found here. Chart: Percentage of Uninsured Below Recent Peaks;
Full Report: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States (2003)]

Today the Times and especially the AP are concerned about the early release of the Census Bureau report, and neither of them locate a single user of this important report who actually gained anything from its early release. Of course, a few days ago the Times led the AP and much of the media in chastising the Education Department for failing to present an early report analyzing the first national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and regular public schools. The Times naively and embarrassingly signed onto a tendentious, bad analysis by the American Federation of Teachers purporting to "show" charter school students doing worse than students in regular public schools. Kausfiles and Eduwonk thoroughly dismembered the AFT report and the Times' role. An article in OpinionJournal discrediting the AFT report by William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard was more withering of the Times' role:

It is not unusual for interest groups to issue misleading reports that further their political agenda. And for this reason, newspapers generally ignore them, treat them with great skepticism, or make sure they vet the study with independent observers. Not so in the case of the recently released study of charter schools issued by the American Federation of Teachers, which, after receiving top billing in the right-hand corner of the front page of yesterday's New York Times, was picked up by news media across the country.

The AFT analysis was so bad that even the Times distanced itself from it in a later article:

Statistics culled by the American Federation of Teachers from a national examination and then published on the front page of The New York Times revealed that charter schools, one of the most ballyhooed reforms, actually trail conventional public schools in bringing children of various ages, races, and incomes to proficiency in math and reading. .... Now, however, is the time to let go of the guilty pleasures of payback. The instant polarization that followed the charter school report misrepresented the issue in dangerous ways. .... Charter schools also enroll a higher proportion of racial minorities than do public schools as a whole. ... Thus, even as trenchant a critic of charter schools as Gene V. Glass, a professor of education at Arizona State University, has found himself leery of seizing on the data released by the American Federation of Teachers.

So the Times and the AP had no trouble signing onto what the Times now admits was a transparent partisan criticism of the Education Department disseminating premature, bad data. And now the AP spends lots and lots of ink questioning the earlier release of supposedly important data whose reliability has not been impaired by that release, and neither the AP nor the Times note that early release of data is better or include important and available information in their articles.

Now that's "bothersome."

UPDATE: The progression of the AP version of this story is curious. What seems to have been the first AP version was headlined "Poverty, Health Insurance Stats Draw Fire" and concerned almost nothing but unsubstantiated accusations that the timing of the release of the Census Bureau data was "politically motivated." The story seems to have evolved under the name of the same author (Genaro C. Armas), eventually with a new headline "Ranks of Poverty, Uninsured Rose in 2003," where it started small and without reference to "political motivation" - concentrating on how this was a "a double dose of bad economic news during a tight re-election campaign for President Bush." Over the next several hours, the story repeatedly appeared under the same author's name and grew longer through several versions (here and here and here and here) - eventually merging the "double dose of bad for Bush" theme with the "political timing" theme, as in this version. Eventually, the AP may have decided that the unsubstantiated "politically motivated timing" accusations were not really "news," because the AP (or the Times) substituted the current version of the story under the old link. The newest version of the AP story - which is the version to which the first AP link in the main post above has been redirected by the AP (or the Times) - contains no references to the Democratic accusations whatsoever.

No version of the story includes any reference to any actual user of this important CB data being more satisfied to receive the data earlier than in past years.

Thanks to an astute reader who e-mailed to point out the deletion of the Democratic accusations.

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