Editor’s note: This piece begins with journalist Sohrab Ahmari’s criticisms of Justin D. Martin’s recent article. Martin’s response comes next, then Ahmari closes it out with a response of his own.
In recent years, the Columbia Journalism Review has devoted special attention to the use and misuse of statistics in American journalism, taking reporters to task when they have fallen for unreliable statistics or failed to seek the human stories behind data. The cover essay in the March/April 2011 issue, for example, harshly criticized the Los Angeles Times for publishing the names of thousands of public school teachers next to their “value-added” performance data without giving readers sufficient context to interpret these numbers. In its next issue, CJR lauded an alternative weekly reporter for exposing the faulty methodology behind wildly alarming sex trafficking statistics that were uncritically picked up by a number of regional broadsheets. Such instances of statistical credulity and probity on the part of journalists regularly earn “darts” and “laurels” in the pages of CJR.
Such efforts are admirable. But they also require CJR to be doubly cautious in its own use of statistics. On April 2, columnist Justin Martin posted an article on the CJR website purporting to spotlight the twelve countries with the most number of journalists jailed “per capita.” Save for the conspicuous absence of China, the resulting list of authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states was mostly predictable. But one country stood out from the rest: Israel. The Jewish state, according to Mr. Martin, jails more journalists per capita than the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, and the Burmese junta, among others. Only Eritrea, Mr. Martin claimed, jails more reporters per capita.
These are arresting rankings. The Committee to Protect Journalists, whose annual report provided Mr. Martin with the raw count of total journalists jailed per country, identifies Iran as the world’s worst jailor of journalists. How did Eritrea, let alone Israel, with its famously rowdy press and print culture, “beat” the Iranian mullahs to first and second place, respectively? Mr. Martin, a journalism professor at the University of Maine, quickly glossed over his own methodology and spent most of his piece drawing political conclusions from the data. Although “the Islamic Republic is up there,” he wrote, “Eritrea and Israel also need to do some explaining.” But Israel was deemed especially blameworthy: “Israel wants to be called a modern democracy and gets cranky when critics point out that it is not.” That it detains more journalists per capita than every other country except Eritrea, Mr. Martin went on, “is a powerful statement.”
Mr. Martin’s findings soon sparked a firestorm of controversy, with supporters of Israel crying foul at the latest instance of Israel-bashing in the prestige press. The outrage intensified once Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times’s newly appointed Jerusalem bureau chief, took to her Twitter account to weigh in. “What do Israel and Iran have in common? Jailing journalists, according to [CJR],” she wrote, without pausing to consider the soundness of such a claim. (She later apologized.)
The outrage was justified. Mr. Martin’s conclusion would not have passed professional muster under the standards CJR imposes on other outlets. Indeed, his methodology was a classic example of the sort of statistical recklessness that CJR scolds other journalists for.
To reach his per capita number, Mr. Martin merely divided the number of journalists detained—a number that, in the case of Israel, was debatable to begin with—by each country’s population in millions. As Commentary’s Omri Ceren pointed out, however, “If you want a ‘per capita’ number describing which countries disproportionately target journalists, you divide the jailed journalists in each country by the total number of journalists in each country, not by the total number of people.” Otherwise, tiny Israel—home to a huge press corps and where commentators in the Arab and leftist presses regularly question the state’s very right to exist—ends up appearing more repressive than, say, North Korea, where a totalitarian regime does not permit journalism as such to exist.
Allowing Mr. Martin to skewer the Jewish state using faulty statistics undermines CJR’s role as professional watchdog. But the harm done extends beyond journalistic standards. The ultimate impact of pieces like Mr. Martin’s is a softening of the reading public’s moral intuitions and sensitivities. By placing Israel on the same plane as the likes of Iran and Syria, Mr. Martin minimized the threats faced by journalists working under genuine authoritarianisms—not to mention the broader human rights catastrophes underway in these societies.