The Times’ numbers game

Fails to add up

In a front-page New York Times article earlier this week, Solomon Moore describes how some overcrowded prison systems are sending their inmates out-of-state, often hundreds of miles away from home, to serve their sentences. It’s an important story, and given that the media’s coverage of prison issues is disproportionately focused on celebrities’ stints in the slammer, it’s great that this less-sexy angle got front-page billing. But what’s just as disturbing as the stats this story provides—about a third of Hawaii’s prisoners are on the mainland, for instance, and in 1997 more than 60 percent of state inmates were held more than 100 miles from home—are the ones it fails to mention.

The article reports that “the long-distance arrangements account for a small fraction of the country’s total prison population — about 10,000 inmates, federal officials estimate.” Okay, that’s how many are in the long-distance arrangement, but what’s the denominator of that fraction? Just how big is the country’s total prison population? That number never makes an appearance.

If it were common knowledge, we could excuse the omission. But the truth is that the mammoth size of America’s prison population is something people only know about vaguely, if at all. Ready for the blow? As of June of last year, there were 2.2 million prisoners in federal or state prisons and local jails. And given the average annual growth rate since 1995, that figure is probably up another 100,000 by now.

Later, Moore mentions that “about 360 inmates from California, which has one of the nation’s most crowded prison systems, are in Arizona and Tennessee.” But again, he doesn’t give the overall picture by failing to cite California’s actual prison population, which as of last week was about 173,000. (That figure would be particularly helpful in discerning a finding mentioned a few paragraphs down: that more than 170,000 California prisoners moved within the state during the first three months of this year.)

Obviously, a news article is not the place to be pushing a social awareness agenda (that’s what Nicholas Kristof’s column is for), but this is basic context we’re talking about—journalism 101—and an otherwise solid piece is diminished by the absence of these numbers.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.