New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt has weighed in on the controversy over the newspaper’s series “War Torn,” about veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who have killed or been charged with killings after returning home. Hoyt says the first article used colorfully inflated language – “trail of death” – for a trend it could not reliably quantify, despite an attempt at statistical analysis using squishy numbers. The article did not make clear what its focus was: killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?
Martin Wells, a professor of statistical sciences at Cornell University, told Hoyt the homicide rate for returning combat veterans could be better or worse than the civilian rate, depending on how many of the 1.6 million military personnel deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars saw combat, a number the Pentagon does not have. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Deborah Sontag and their editor, Matthew Purdy – argued against trying to make a comparison to civilian homicide rates. The military does not accept people with mental problems or records of serious crimes – the likeliest killers in the civilian population – so its rate is likely to be lower and the comparison irrelevant. Hoyt concludes that “questionable statistics muddy the message. A handful of killings caused by the stresses of war would be too many and cause for action. Sometimes, trying to turn such stories into data – with implications of statistical proof and that old journalistic convention, the trend – harms rather than helps.”