Monday, November 21, 2005

(dis)Honest Journalism

I realize that journalists are like everyone else - their beliefs will inevitably trickle into the articles that they write. However, i do believe that anyone who is engaging in journalism (that is reporting on the world's events) has an obligation to be intellectually honest with their readers.

In my travels through the web today, I encountered Lifesite.net - a rleigious "current affairs" website. On it, I found this article screaming Homosexuality Triggering HIV Escalation. Knowing that even under the Bush administration, the CDC remains fastidiously methodical in their studies, I was a little astonished to read something drawing such an absolute conclusion coming from them. So, I opened the study that Lifesite's reporter had referred to and started to read.

As I read through the document, I found what had the reporter was so excited:

Although a statistically significant increase occurred from 2003 to 2004 in the number of diagnosed infections among MSM, the overall annual average percentage change from 2001 to 2004 was not significant. Flat trends in diagnoses were observed among white, black, and Hispanic MSM. The small upturn in diagnoses in 2003--2004 occurred for all racial/ethnic MSM populations. Increases in HIV diagnoses during this period are more difficult to interpret because of increasing emphasis on the benefits of increased testing among persons at high risk. Whereas increases among MSM might reflect increases in HIV incidence, consistent with increases in syphilis and other risk behaviors, they might also reflect increases in HIV testing among MSM. Increasing HIV testing among MSM is critical in light of a study of MSM aged 15--29 years in six U.S. cities, which reported that the proportion of unrecognized HIV infection was as high as 77% (7). Although a significant increase occurred in HIV/AIDS diagnoses among Asian/Pacific Islanders from 2001 to 2004, this population continues to have the lowest HIV/AIDS rates of any racial/ethnic population in the United States.

* Note: MSM apparently is the CDC's abbreviation for Men who have sex with men.

Ah - of course, even when you read it, it's fairly apparent that the reporter has rather badly missed a bunch of qualifying points:

Whereas increases among MSM might reflect increases in HIV incidence, consistent with increases in syphilis and other risk behaviors, they might also reflect increases in HIV testing among MSM. Increasing HIV testing among MSM is critical in light of a study of MSM aged 15--29 years in six U.S. cities, which reported that the proportion of unrecognized HIV infection was as high as 77% (7).

In other words, the statistics themselves are inconclusive. The precise causes of an increase in diagnosed cases is far from clear. The interpretation of the results is ambiguous at best.

The report goes on to say:

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations.

First, although AIDS is a reportable condition in all 50 states, name-based HIV data are not reportable in all states.

Second, classification of cases with no identified risk factor was based on follow-up investigations; those cases were assumed to constitute a representative sample of all cases initially reported without a risk factor.

Really, how much effort would it have taken Lifesite's reporter to read the CDC report (and supporting reports - which are heavily cross-referenced) and report honestly on the ambiguity of the results? Deriving causal relationships between axis of statistical analysis is a mug's game at the best of time - even more so when topics of human behaviour are involved.

However, if you are going to report on something as if it is fact, then you really should make sure you actually read the sources that you are citing.

Of course, like Ezra Levant's "Western Standard" and the Byfields' now-defunct "Alberta Report", LifeSite isn't actually interested in facts. They have a political action agenda, and they'll cheerfully twist anything available to suit their agenda.

On the other hand, it tells those who stand in opposition to the rabid anti-womens/gay/abortion/contraception rights of the Religious Reich some very important information - you aren't dealing with a rational opposition, but instead with a form of opponent who will bend, fold and mutilate rationality to fit their preconceptions.

Consider the implications of this Pope's Address to Health Conference, which LifeSite's reporters distilled to this. The implications for women are deeply disturbing in a plethora of ways. Not the least of which, it further self-justifies standard Catholic dogma about contraception, and theoretically implies that women should be happy to get pregnant at any time. Of course, when you believe that women have no place in the direct line of communication with God, it's hardly any surprise that women become subjugated to the whims of men by virtue of biology. When this kind of theologically derived illogic is driving policy decisions, people should become very worried indeed.

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