Thu Dec 20, 2012

The New York Times and the OECD

Update: See the addendum at the end of this post for the response I got from the Times.

Yesterday I got an email from an editorial assistant at the Times:

Hi Professor Healy,

We are publishing a column today that may 
reference the data you use here in your post here:

http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2012/12/18/assault-death-rates-in-america-some-follow-up/

You mention that the OECD stats are gated — 
any chance you could share them with us, 
for fact checking purposes?

Thanks
Natalie

Natalie Kitroeff
Editorial Assistant
The New York Times

How would you interpret a request like that? I figured someone at the Times was going to refer to that post in passing, and the paper wanted some reassurance that I hadn’t just invented the numbers. I made the code for those charts publicly available, but the OECD data itself is buried in a gated database, which means I can’t publicly share it. So, I replied and attached a spreadsheet with the data, together with a description and a link to the OECD. I asked who was going to make use of it. She replied saying “Charles Blow, an opinion columnist here, may well include it in a chart he is compiling for tonight. Thanks very much!”

Today the New York Times has a column by Charles Blow presenting a table of various comparative, cross-national measures of violence. Here’s a clip:

The table’s “Assault deaths per 100,000 population” column uses the OECD data I sent them. It’s credited to the OECD, as it should be. But I’m slightly irritated. If you email me asking for data you can’t be bothered or don’t know how to dig up yourself, then say so. If that’s what you want, please don’t say you’re emailing me “for fact-checking purposes”. You’re not fact-checking something I did: you just want the data for yourself. In that case, the polite thing to do is acknowledge where you learned of its existence.

────────

Update: I got a follow-up email from Natalie Kitroeff at the Times. Here it is:

Hi Professor Healy, 

Thanks so much for your assistance with this yesterday. 
I just wanted to send a quick note to clear up a 
misunderstanding. After receiving the OECD data on assault 
deaths, we actually received the same dataset directly 
from economists at the OECD. We would have had absolutely 
no problem citing your blog as the source for the data, 
but our policy is to cite the source of the data directly 
when they provide it to us directly. 

Again, I really appreciate your help with this, 
and apologize for the misunderstanding. 

Best,
Natalie

I appreciate her following up. I have three things to say in reply. First, I don’t think this is particularly responsive to the problem of using the language of “fact-checking” to get hold of data. Second, Charles Blow opens his column by saying “Sometimes I think the best argument is raw data. This is one of those times.” It’s easier for it to be one of those times when someone has done the tedious work of ferreting out a specific time-series, drawn a picture of it that shows you why it’s so striking, and then sent you both the actual data and a reference for the hard-working economists at the OECD to follow up on. Third, as I said on Twitter earlier, this isn’t a big deal—in fact, it’s a little embarrassing to post about, because it feels like carping. But I do think that when a topic is as politicized as gun violence in the US, and when people are only too happy to discount data, or dismiss figures, or claim that research is biased, it’s worth being courteous about sources. It’s not hard to do. Consider how a hard-working economist at the New York Times dealt with it in similar circumstances back in July.

So, that’s that.