Sunday, July 18, 2010

NZ Herald bullet-shit

The New Zealand Herald has huge trouble understanding statistics. Maybe their parent company APN has fired too many journalists, or maybe the few who are left don’t have time to think about what they’re writing, or to fact-check. Whatever the situation, the paper has—again—published a nonsense story about cops carrying guns.

The paper reported what it admitted was an “unscientific poll of 1500 Auckland readers of the New Zealand Herald, the Herald on Sunday, New Zealand Woman's Weekly and the New Zealand Listener.” And what does “unscientific” mean, exactly? The short answer is that the poll means absolutely nothing.

Supposedly, the poll “found” that “almost three-quarters of people also support guns being routinely carried in police patrol cars”. Currently they’re carried in locked compartments in some patrol cars. In fact, police are looking at expanding the number of police cars that carry guns.

The Herald also claimed that a slim plurality of people “polled” support police carrying guns at all times (47.3% favour and 46.8% opposed that). It’s this statistic that makes the headline, “Support for police carrying guns” a little misleading. But, then, reporting these “statistics” at all is misleading.

The Herald conducted another poll late last year that found that a mere 29.2% favoured armed police, while 66.9% opposed that. The most recent “poll” was conducted after two police officers were shot, and a police dog killed, in a confrontation with a criminal. Such events—especially the killing of the dog—create visceral reactions in people, ones they might not have with time for calm and sober reflection.

Timing notwithstanding, one simply doesn’t see such a dramatic shift of opinion on such a hot-button issue in only half a year. And it’s that, more than anything else, that clearly demonstrates how useless these “poll” results are.

The Herald’s motivation seems to have been political—to try and force a greater arming of police. That’s the best explanation I have for why the paper has been pushing this so hard. Otherwise, they’re being irresponsible in flaming the situation. Actually, it’s both.

The Herald should report on the implications of all this, how even if the two officers had been armed, it probably wouldn’t have kept them from being shot; instead, they may have had a shoot-out with the criminals and shot other people. They may have killed the offender rather than making him face justice. Some would argue that would be a better result, and sometimes—emotionally—I couldn’t disagree. But civilised societies are about the rule of law, not wild shoot-outs in the streets. We don’t need an ever-escalating arms race in which criminals and police constantly vie to have the most powerful weapons to use against each other. In short, we don’t need to turn New Zealand into the US.

But the Herald doesn’t seem up to the task and instead presents bullshit “statistics” as if they’re real and meaningful. We deserve better from the country’s leading newspaper. Sadly, we’re unlikely to get it.

Update 19/7/10: There was another incident in which shots were fired, but this time the criminal was hit, allegedly after firing an air rifle at police. Like the other recent events, Tazers were used but had no effect. Unlike that other event, police armed according to the current policy fired weapons—and they weren't uniquely armed. The media still spins this as being evidence that all police should be armed at all times.

Meanwhile, the police union, which is pushing for the full arming of police, said it welcomes the standard inquires that follow a police shooting, but doesn't want "uninformed opinion" about it. Um, this is still a democracy, and people are entitled to have—and express—their opinions, whether informed or not—and whether the police union likes it or not.


Nik said...

A much wiser editor than many down here told me once that "90% of surveys are nonsense. Avoid using them as the basis for any reporting."

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

That was a very wise editor, indeed! The particular problem I have with the Herald is that they tend to report nonsense surveys—like online polls on their website—as if they're real. Meanwhile, the real stories don't get covered.