We Stand Behind Our Stereotype
The New York Times embraces the "wacko vet" myth.

The American Spectator, April 2008

There is a school of thought in journalism where it is bad form to mention the race or ethnicity of criminal suspect or defendant unless there is a compelling reason to do so. The idea is that such references gratuitously perpetuate stereotypes while imparting information that is of no use to the reader.

Racial and ethnic groups are not the only ones to take offense at such stereotypes. As the New York Times reported in January:

Veterans groups have long deplored the attention paid to the minority of soldiers who fail to readjust to civilian life.

After World War I, the American Legion passed a resolution asking the press "to subordinate whatever slight news value there may be in playing up the ex-service member angle in stories of crime or offense against the peace." An article in the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine in 2006 referred with disdain to the pervasive "wacko-vet myth," which, veterans say, makes it difficult for them to find jobs.

The wacko-vet myth is alive and well. This very passage comes from a 7,000-word front-page piece in the Times titled "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles":

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment--along with alcohol abuse, family discord, and other attendant problems--appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.
Are they depraved on account of being deployed? In fact, the Times's data were not sufficient to establish a correlation, much less a causal relationship, between stateside homicide and previous service in Afghanistan or Iraq.

To determine whether such a correlation exists, we would need to know, in addition to the number of war vets charged with homicide, the corresponding figure for the general population, as well as the denominators--i.e., the total number of war vets and the size of the population as a whole. A serious analysis would also take into account the demographic characteristics of the veteran population, which is disproportionately young and male.

This the Times did not do. John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog conducted some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that if the Times's numbers were correct, "the rate of homicides committed by military personnel who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan is only a fraction of the homicide rate for other Americans aged 18 to 24." In the New York Post, Ralph Peters echoed the point:

A very conservative estimate of how many different service members have passed through Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait since 2003 is 350,000 (and no, that's not double-counting those with repeated tours of duty).

Now consider the Justice Department's numbers for murders committed by all Americans aged 18 to 34--the key group for our men and women in uniform. To match the homicide rate of their peers, our troops would've had to come home and commit about 150 murders a year, for a total of 700 to 750 murders between 2003 and the end of 2007.

In other words, the Times unwittingly makes the case that military service reduces the likelihood of a young man or woman committing a murder by 80 percent.

Two weeks after the Times story ran, ombudsman Clark Hoyt answered the critics. He began by taking a shot at them:

The Times was immediately accused--in the New York Post and the conservative blogosphere, and by hundreds of messages to the public editor--of portraying all veterans as unstable killers. It did not.
This is a straw man. Neither Peters nor the Post accused the Times of portraying all veterans in this way. What Peters did accuse the Times of was "portraying our troops as clichéd maniacs." Surely if a newspaper had run a story on, say, black murderers and were accused of racial stereotyping, the plaint that "we didn't say all blacks are murderers" would not be a sufficient defense.

In any case, Hoyt conceded the critics' fundamental point--that the paper's numbers proved nothing:

The Times made some missteps at the beginning of the series. . . . 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. Was it about killer vets, or about human tragedies involving a system that sometimes fails to spot and treat troubled souls returning from combat?

Finally, while many of the 121 cases found by the Times appeared clearly linked to wartime stresses, others seemed questionable. . . .

The 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.

The original Times piece, however, had preempted this line of argument by acknowledging a defect in its methodology, one that the paper claimed might lead to an undercounting of homicidal vets:

To compile and analyze its list, the Times conducted a search of local news reports, examined police, court and military records and interviewed the defendants, their lawyers and families, the victims' families and military and law enforcement officials.

This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in detail. Also, it was often not possible to determine the deployment history of other service members arrested on homicide charges.

If the numbers weren't comprehensive, what exactly was the Times trying to prove? This is where things get interesting:

The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.

What the Times discovered, then, was a dramatic increase in the number of news reports in which homicide defendants are identified as servicemen or recent veterans. Does this mean that those who've served their country are more crime-prone now than they were in peacetime? Or does it mean that reporters are more prone to perpetuate the wacko-vet myth than they were during peacetime?

The Times is trying to prove the truth of a media stereotype by references to media reports. It ended up proving nothing more than that it is a stereotype.

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