Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (
By James M. Jackson
Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the quote that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I would add “redaction” to that list. By redaction, I mean intentionally not mentioning all the facts when framing an issue or convincing someone of a point.
Perhaps you recently read or heard a lede about the Patmos Library like this one from mlive.com[i] that “Voters in a fast-growing West Michigan township on Tuesday defunded their public library amid a campaign against LGBTQ materials on the shelves.”
The USA Today headline read: “A Michigan town may lose its only library after its staff refused to remove an LGBTQ book.” Its lede “When a library staff in a west Michigan township refused to remove its books containing LGBTQ themes, residents voted to defund their only library.”
Maybe you also heard that a GoFundMe campaign to “save the Patmos Library” raised $250,000 (a year’s budget), of which novelist Nora Roberts donated $50,000 (the maximum allowed under GoFundMe rules).[ii]
The articles and hoopla implied the reason voters of Jackson Township voted down the library funding was because a group campaigned against the millage because the library refused to ban LGBTQ books, which the library board says they will not do.
The MLive article notes voters approved two other millage requests on the ballot: a millage renewal for the fire department, and one for road improvements. The article uses those facts to imply voters picked on the library, not the fire department, nor the roads they drive on.
Fox news also focused on the charges by those who wanted to forbid the LGBTQ books,[iii] making sure to include descriptions of some books the group objected to.
What got one line and no commentary in the MLive article and no mention in other articles I read was this: “(the vote) would’ve renewed and increased the millage of 0.4186 mills to 0.60 mills through 2032.”
Credit to the MLive article for including the millage-increase fact. However, it and every other article ignored the tax increase in its discussion. Every article I found framed the issue as a battle between banning books and suppressing ideas (if you think we should not ban books) or allowing children access to pornographic/sinful material (if you are against such access). Factors such as the proposed 43.33% millage increase that may have had an equal or greater effect on the vote received no analysis. For example, was turnout higher or lower than normal for the town and what are the implications of that?
I support my local schools and almost always vote to approve whatever they request. At least once I (and a majority of my fellow voters) voted against a proposed school bond issue that covered necessary projects plus others I considered unnecessary bloat. The school board reflected on the rejection, modified their proposal, and at the next election the voters (including me) overwhelmingly approved their second try.
Now, please imagine your reaction if the headline instead had been Jackson County voters reject 43.33% increase in taxes for library. Do you think people from outside the township would have rushed to fund the library?
This is one recent example of selective reporting. My impression is that it is now standard practice in the United States of 2022 to ignore facts that do not support our beliefs. Ignoring the 43.33% increase “benefited” both sides of the “ban books” argument. Book ban proponents claimed their issue had overwhelmingly won the day, garnering 62.5% of the vote, almost twice as many as the 37.5% who voted with the library board.
By conceding that those who wished to ban books at the cost of all library services had won, the library board avoided (at least publicly) addressing whether they had successfully explained why they needed a 43.33% increase in funds. The media won as well. Without the outrage over defunding a public library (or thumping chests of book-banners in victory) the stories would have attracted very few eyeballs.
To attract readers, media redacts boring facts and cherry-picks those to include. This is not a recent trend. (Remember reading in high school about the “Yellow Journalism” of the late nineteenth century?). It’s much slicker now. Years ago, the Atlantic published an article on the subject, “The story behind the story,[iv]” which I commend to your reading.
Jim, I sense you asking, why do you care?
I don’t want others to manipulate you or me. Here is my ask: before you repost on Social Media that article that either appeals to or is an outrage against your beliefs, ask yourself if it contains the whole story. If not, it’s likely someone wants you to be a pawn in their larger game.
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.