Using statistics to flesh out a story

by Prarthana Jayaram

I read this story on Vox this morning about the grand jury’s failure to indict anyone in the case of Sandra Bland’s death. It caught my attention because of the way it dug into the story; rather than just reporting the grand jury’s decision at face value, the author pulled in some numbers to describe what many see as a trend.

In particular, the story grabs a few stats from the Bureau of Justice to demonstrate how Bland’s traffic stop and suicide might represent a bigger problem, a “broken criminal justice system” (I put that in quotes because it’s something I have seen a couple of other news organizations say in their own coverage of this news, but Vox is the first place I have seen display some actual data to back it up).

One thing it does miss, though, is some of the nuance to the data. For example, this earlier piece from NPR shows that it’s a little more complex than just a greater rate of suicide for inmates than for the general pop. There is actually a hierarchy – jail inmates have the highest suicide rate, followed by prison inmates, followed by the general population. Though Bland was a jail inmate, not prison, the Vox article is perhaps a little misleading in making its graph show only the jail rate versus the general population. I also think the second graph in the NPR piece is important because it puts the suicide statistic in a different context. It changes the way you consider it when you see that illness is overwhelmingly more likely to kill an inmate than suicide. And finally, NPR is a little more fair in its analysis than Vox because it talks about how the criminal justice system has improved over time in dealing with mental health issues among inmates.

Another example: a similar story by The Marshall Project also chooses to contrast just the jail inmate suicide rate with the general pop – and I have less of an issue with it in that story than in the Vox piece. I think it’s because of the nature of the article; The Marshall Project makes it pretty clear (hint: look at the headline) that there is a little more to the data than just that one visualization shows.

So, there’s some good and bad in using data the way Vox does to “round out” a story based on a news peg. The data shown there are simple. The graphs don’t “prove” anything and maybe miss a bit of nuance in the actual numbers. But they do provide some factual context and allow the story to expand on the news of the grand jury’s announcement, which I think other news outlets could benefit from. (And I realize Vox probably does it because its mission is to “explain the news”, so by its nature, Vox fills in more context than other publications. But I am a big fan of “big picture” thinking, so I think that philosophy should have more of a place in mainstream media.)

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