Reading countless news articles every day, it’s easy to get inured to bad journalism. It’s everywhere and face it, you get used to it. By “bad journalism,” I mean lots of different things, but mostly it boils down to ignorance of the topics written about.
A lot of that stems from the fact that reporters have too much to do. News organizations have been ruthlessly paring down their staffs for many years now in an effort to deal with budgetary restraints and free news on the Internet. So I understand that people who write news articles often don’t have the time to fully investigate what they’re reporting on.
But all that means is that the reporters aren’t bad people. It doesn’t mean that their articles are good journalism. Often – very often – they’re not.
So it’s a great pleasure to read an article like this one (Village Voice, 3/23/11).
This is journalism at its best. The writer, Nick Pinto, strips bare for all to see the women’s advocates, the politicians and, yes, the journalists, who combined to perpetrate a fraud on the American people.
In this case the fraud was about child sex trafficking in the United States. Readers might remember that last year, The Guardianin England did a similar report on sex trafficking into that country. For years, organizations like Oxfam had been ballyhooing figures about the number of women brought into the U.K. for the purpose of staffing brothels. According to those groups, some 28,000 women had been brought into the country to be sex workers.
So when over 50 national, international and local police agencies combined to do a sweep of sex workers throughout the country and arrested almost 800 people, it was worth noting that not one of them had been trafficked. At the time, advocates for sex workers loudly proclaimed that they did the work of their own free will because it pays well.
Now we have our very own homegrown scandal about child sex trafficking.
It seems an organization called the Women’s Funding Network, in conjunction with the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, the Juvenile Justice Fund and others hired a business consultant called the Schapiro Group to study trafficking of underage girls.
Now, the Schapiro Group had never done such a study before and had no apparent qualifications for the job. But what everyone seems to have understood is that, if you want government funding, you’d better produce some splashy figures. So they did.
How they did is the nut of the matter. The “methodology” they utilized would be laughed out of a freshman sociology course, but for Congress and countless media outlets, it was fine.
Essentially, the Schapiro group first asked 100 people to look at photos of young women on Craigslist “escort” pages and guess which ones were under 18. It turned out that 38 of them were wrong. So they used that figure (38%) as an across-the-board factor to correct future estimates by other people about the ages of the women on Craigslist.
They then had people look at Craigslist photos, decide which women were underage, took 62% of that number and reported it as the number of underage women trafficked for sex in the particular state in which the Craigslist was located.
Pinto quotes numerous qualified social scientists as, to say the least, critical of that “methodology.” Pinto himself hits the nail on the head calling it “junk science.” In fact, that’s putting it mildly.
After all, no one involved in the study knew the ages of the young women in the photos, so there was no way to ascertain whether they were of age or not. Into the bargain, it’s not exactly a secret that many people post photos of themselves at ages younger than they are at the time the photos appear. The Schapiro Group apparently hadn’t gotten the memo.
About other holes in their research, Pinto says,
When we asked Schapiro and Rusty Parker, the leader of the classifieds study, to fill in some of the missing pieces in their methodology, they had a hard time coming up with straight answers. In fact, Parker couldn’t remember key information about how he constructed the study. When asked where he got the sample pictures used to calibrate the all-important 38 percent error rate, he wasn’t sure.
“It was a while back,” he says. “I forget exactly where we got them from.”
Parker was equally fuzzy on how the researchers knew the ages of the people pictured in the control group.
“Um…I’m afraid I do not remember,” he says.
You might say that this is important information. The Schapiro group has been telling the world that it cracked the alchemical code that transforms dumb guesses into hard statistics, and that the magic number is .38. But the leader of the study can’t remember the procedure he followed to get that number.
Meanwhile, Beth Schapiro, having first put forth her figures on child sex trafficking as gospel, then turns around and says
“We’re the first to tell you, this is not a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted,” Schapiro said. “We make no bones about that.”
But then does another about face.
Of course, a precise count of the number of girls being prostituted is exactly what the statistics are being presented as in the media, in press releases, and in Schapiro’s own study. When this is pointed out, Schapiro reverses herself.
“Well, yes, these are specific numbers,” Schapiro backpedals. “And yes, they are hard numbers, and they are numbers that we stand completely behind.”
Except she doesn’t stand behind them or maybe she does. Ultimately she opts for doing both.
This is the kind of cognitive whiplash you have to endure if you try to follow Schapiro down the rabbit hole. The numbers have the weight of fact and can properly be cited as actual incidents of juvenile prostitution, she insists. But when pressed to justify the broad and unsupported assumptions of her study, she says the study is just a work in progress and the numbers are only approximations.
Schapiro’s grasp on empirical rigor is such that when asked point-blank to choose between her two contradictory interpretations–estimates or facts–she opts for “all of the above.”
“I would square the circle by saying that you can look at them both ways,” she says.
Having done what no other media outlet did – examine the supposed “study” instead of unquestioningly reporting its claims – Pinto is not very impressed by publications that dropped the ball. Those are papers like USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, and others, supposedly reliable organizations.
Nor does he think much of the motivations for such an approach to studying sex trafficking which turned out to be purely mercenary.
One of the prime movers behind the bogus study was one Kaffie McCullough.
In early 2007, McCullough approached the Georgia Legislature to ask for money for a regional assessment center to track juvenile prostitution.
“We had no research, no nothing. The legislators didn’t even know about it,” she recalls. “We got a little bit. We got about 20 percent of what we asked for.”
Later that year, the first Schapiro Group counts were made, and when McCullough returned to the Legislature the following session, she had the study’s statistics in hand.
“When we went to the Legislature with those counts, it gave us traction–night and day,” she says. “That year, we got all the rest of that money, plus we got a study commission.”
For McCullough, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.
“I would say, ‘The research costs money, but we’ve been able to broker–I don’t know what it is now, I think it’s over $1.3, $1.6 million in funding that we never would have gotten,'” McCullough says…
Admitting that there isn’t any authoritative scientific count of juvenile prostitution, as (researcher David) Finkelhor recommends, isn’t an option in McCullough’s book. She recalls an early presentation she made in Nebraska, when a politician gave her a piece of advice that stuck.
“He said, ‘If you all as a movement don’t start having numbers, you are going to lose the money,'” McCullough recalls. “‘How can you justify millions of dollars when there are only hundreds of victims that you’re actually serving?'”
And so people like Deborah Richardson of the Women’s Funding Network went before a Congressional committee to loudly proclaim the staggering figures
[O]ver the past six months, the number of underage girls trafficked online has risen exponentially in three diverse states,” Richardson claimed. “Michigan: a 39.2 percent increase; New York: a 20.7 percent increase; and Minnesota: a staggering 64.7 percent increase.”
What matter that those figures are essentially made-up. The news media love a lurid story and can be counted on to not actually read the “study.” Congress can be counted on to become indignant about anything that has to do with children and sex. And all that means the continuing flow of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of those promoting the cause.
Hey, it beats working for a living.
Thanks to Ronald, John and others for the heads-up.