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Inappropriate Statistics Distort News, Study Shows

January 30, 2002

The national media, in particular television news, distorts statistics when reporting accident, health and crime stories, says Charles R. Berger, UC Davis professor of communication, in a recent journal article.

"Within the context of so-called 'advocacy journalism,' it may be acceptable to go to any lengths to make a point in order to 'raise public consciousness' concerning particular threats or problems," he says.

Berger sampled editions of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Sacramento Bee and USA Today as well as news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN's "World Today" over four separate weeks in 1998.

He found that reporters depend on statistics that show an increase in frequency without taking into account the change to the larger population over the same period. Without using the base population context, statistics are more dramatic and thus misleading, Berger says.

In his study, Berger also found that television news stories on worsening trends were substantially longer than television stories presenting improving trends on societal problems. By contrast, newspaper stories depicting worsening trends were slightly shorter than newspaper stories presenting improving trends.

"When the news media present quantitative data depicting trends in threatening phenomena, they do so in ways that are likely to enhance a worsening condition and to mute or dampen an improving condition," Berger concludes.

His study was published in the Journal of Communications in December.

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