Statistics and Moral Sense

A dialogue about Justin Martin’s “Which Countries Jail the Most Journalists Per Capita?”

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.

In Iran, where I was born and spent the first half of my life, journalists and writers are persecuted on a nearly industrial scale; dozens of outlets are shuttered every year. Just last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, Nazanin Khosravani, a reformist writer, began serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s nightmarish Evin prison for the crime of “propagating against the system”—a charge unheard of in Israel. But why should Western audiences care about these very real injustices when seemingly authoritative “statistics” show the West—including Israel and the U.S.—to be equally authoritarian? Mr. Martin thus challenged the common moral sense of his readers, distorting conclusions they would otherwise draw from straightforward reporting on the realities of practicing journalism in free and unfree societies. Will he earn a dart from CJR anytime soon?

Justin D. Martin responds:

Some issues in journalism fire up audiences more than others. In the United States, for example, few issues enrage, politically galvanize, or push Americans into civil society more than reportage on major problems or missteps at their children’s schools. Globally, it is reporting on the Middle East, particularly Israel/Palestine matters, that draws ire, fulsome praise, or ad hominem molotovs.

Mr. Ahmari was a critic of my CJR article that looked at the ratio of countries’ jailed journalists to their population size, and who decreed to his Twitter followers that I am “morally obtuse.”
His critique here is more sophisticated at times than calling me stupid on Twitter, so I’ll respond in turn to Mr. Ahmari’s primary concerns:

Nations’ counts of journalists should have been used in the calculations, rather than population size.

I fully agree with this criticism. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have reliable data on national tallies for working reporters in many of the countries—Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia—that jail journalists. And even if such data were available, we would want counts of how many newsmakers in each country were working for regime-owned news sources versus private organizations. For now, although the data are a bit large and cumbersome, ratios of imprisoned reporters to countries’ population still deliver some meaning. The comparison that led me to write the essay was the fact that China and Eritrea jail about the same numbers of reporters, but the former country has more than 250 times more people.

Israel was unfairly criticized.

I never criticized a “Jewish state” in my report, as Mr. Ahmari wrote, which implies that I was specifically blaming Jews for jailing newsmakers. I noted in my essay that Israel is a country of seven million that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is unjustly jailing four journalists. Actually, I did Israel a favor in my essay, because the CPJ data make Israel look worse. Their counts report that seven journalists are jailed in “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” This wording can leave the impression that Israel has incarcerated all seven journalists in its own prisons as well as that which it occupies, but this is not the case. I read every profile of these seven jailed reporters provided by CPJ, and learned that three of them had been jailed by Hamas in Gaza.

While I hate it when journalists point to their past reportage to respond to critiques of more recent work, I have impunity to do that here, because one of the primary articles cited by Mr. Ahmari that criticized my essay said I was clearly “anti-Israel” since I highlighted (not only in the current essay but a previous column) its attacks on free expression. By that metric, however, I’m also anti-US, anti-Turkey, anti-Kuwait, anti-Egypt, anti-Tunisia, anti-Qatar, anti-France, anti-Singapore, anti-Jordan, and more. To make it seem as though I’ve singled out Israel for miscarriages of free speech while giving other countries a pass is wrong. I’ve spent my professional life writing about limits to free speech in some of the world’s most oppressive outposts, and anyone who types my name into Google knows this. (In June, for example, I’m traveling to the West Bank to report on the Palestinian Authority’s regular desecrations of free speech.)

Martin gave harsher regimes a pass.

Some critics of my CJR piece were angry that Israel was criticized and that other countries in the greater Middle East, like Turkey and Iran, received some kind of national holiday. I’m aware that recent reports have listed Turkey as jailing dozens more journalists than are listed in the CPJ counts. Some of these reports are curious, however. Dexter Filkins filed a New Yorker brief on Turkey’s jailed journalists, for example, and in the report he relied on CPJ data for counts of jailed reporters in China and Iran, but then switched to the report of a Turkish organization for its numbers of hoosegow-ed newsmakers. The multinational analysis was not consistent. The Committee to Protect Journalists may have a scorching year-end report on Turkey for 2012, and I’m willing to wait for the integrity of those figures.

Data from CPJ are conservative. At the end of 2011 they counted 179 journalists in jail throughout the world. Clearly, more journalists were detained or tossed in holding cells that year, but the counts focus mostly on extended incarceration. This is why, while police in the United States tossed many journalists in jail during the Occupy protests, the US doesn’t make CPJ’s year-end list of padlock-happy countries; reporters in the US tend to be held for a few hours and then released (disgraceful, yes, but not what CPJ is counting in this particular case).

As for Iran—which is, as Mr. Ahmari correctly notes, a holy hell for journalists—its theocrats won’t give someone like me a visa, especially given that I write consistently about free speech. And I typically do not file in-depth reports on freedom of expression in a particular country until I’ve been there on a fact-finding trip at least once. I can criticize a country like Iran that won’t let me in, which can be done in 100 characters on Twitter, but it doesn’t make for an interesting thousand-word essay.

I appreciate Mr. Ahmari taking the time to critique my work. While we disagree on some of the particulars expressed in commentary, we are both still enemies of strangled speech. The charge that I was unfair in my analysis of jailed journalists per capita—or, worse, obfuscating—is as unfounded as unicorns, but I’m glad there are steeds like Ahmari willing to ride and write for free speech.

Sohrab Ahmari responds:

I commend Mr. Martin for readily conceding my central point: namely, that his per capita calculations were flawed. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Martin does not retract his rankings altogether, claiming that, in the absence of more accurate data regarding the number of independent journalists working in each country, his method still provides “some meaning.” This can be said of every statistical method. But saying so does not render fundamentally inaccurate and unreliable statistics trustworthy. A criminologist who makes statistical claims about an entire city based on crime data from a limited number of neighborhoods cannot maintain the soundness of his method just because it delivers “some meaning.” Likewise, if more precise data are needed to calculate the per capita number of journalists jailed by each country, then the responsible thing to do would be to seek such data—not to insist on claims hastily made in their absence.

In response to my broader moral argument, Mr. Martin vociferously disavows any anti-Israel bias. “I never criticized a ‘Jewish state’ in my report,” he writes. Yet to casually place Israel on the same moral plane as Eritrea and other authoritarian countries is indeed to unfairly target the Jewish state. Nor was Mr. Martin doing Israel any favors by discounting the number of journalists detained by Hamas in Gaza: How could the Israelis be held responsible for writers detained by an Islamist movement on territory they withdrew from some seven years ago? I of course thank Mr. Martin for speaking out against curtailments of free speech everywhere. But in doing so, Mr. Martin makes no philosophical distinction between democracies and unfree states. This episode, I hope, has revealed the perils of such a position.

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Sohrab Ahmari , an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a forthcoming anthology of essays by young Mideast dissidents (Palgrave Macmillan). Tags: , , , , ,