Don’t worry. I’ll be off this numbers binge soon. But indulge me for one more post, because I have a good example of a common phenomenon in press coverage of preferences — not of how to lie with statistics, but at least of how misleading conclusions are encouraged by the way numbers are presented.
A while ago (which is to say, in pre-DISCRIMINATIONS days), the Washington Post ran a story by its education reporter, Jay Mathews, presenting the economist Walter Williams’ argument that students should avoid attending colleges where their SAT scores are 200 or so points lower than the average. He gave many reasons, including prominently the increased chances of not graduating. (“College Applicants Urged to Take Cues From SAT Scores,” Washington Post, 2 April 2002, p. A7.)
Although the article was generally fair to Williams, it presented numbers from the University of Virginia in such a way as to suggest that, at least at UVa, Williams’ warning was inappropriate. In fact, the way it presented the numbers was inappropriate.
- It said that at UVa black SAT scores lag some 200 points below the average of “the entire entering class.” Obviously, then, they lag more than 200 points behind the average of entering whites and Asians, which is the more relevant comparison.
- Similarly, it said that the black graduation rate within six years was 83.3 percent “compared with 92.1 percent for the class.” Again, the relevant comparison is not to the entire class, which includes them; it is to the graduation rate for students admitted without preferences.
- It said that UVa’s black graduation rate is “high,” presumably because 80 sounds close to 90. And it is true that UVa’s black graduation rate is higher than Michigan and Berkeley and, in fact, than any other selective public university. But it would be equally true to say that the rate at which blacks fail to graduate is also “high,” more than twice that of whites and Asians. (Roughly 10% of whites/Asians fail to graduate after six years; roughly 20% of blacks fail to do so. Actually the disparity is greater — that’s why I said “more than” — because, as pointed out, the 92.1% rate is for the whole class, which includes the blacks, rather than with the more relevant white/Asian graduation rate, which is not given in the article.
I had an interesting, and friendly, exchange of emails Mathews, who wrote at one point that I was correct in noting that, even at the university with one of the highest black graduation rates, blacks failed to graduate at more than twice the rate of whites and Asians. But, my correspondent continued,
I think that is accentuating the negative. We are in a time of change, each generation of blacks does better academically, and I think that is the proper focus.
The numbers in the Post article were not incorrect, but that “high” was a journalistic low. It didn’t cook the numbers, but it laid them out on the readers’s plate so as to tell only part of the story. Readers were required to stop, think, and do their own math to see an equally true but different picture of the same facts. And this was done on purpose.
I suppose it is asking too much these days to ask opinion-leading newspapers, in their news articles, to accentuate neither the positive nor the negative.