Publication Bias

By Chaka Holley

A recent news headline read “Brandon Ross Charged With Murder After Police Fatally Shoot 15-Year-Old Companion”.  Shocked, many re-read the headline for clarity.  

On Wednesday May 27, 2011, 16 year old, Brandon Ross and 15 year old, Tatoiun Williams allegedly stole a man’s wallet and iPod at gun point. When the police caught up with the teenagers, Williams reportedly had a gun in his hand. The police officer shot the young man, killing him.

Although, Williams was killed by the officer, Ross is charged with murder, “the unlawful killing of another human being with “malice aforethought“.” Stunned by the charge against Ross, many have commented on articles and blog posts reporting the story. A large portion of the comments display sympathy for Ross and lament for Williams, but  others favor the legal charges against Ross.

Publication bias is the tendency to accept published materials as true or factual.  In crime stories, publication bias is often seen in the tendency to refer to allegations as factual, infer information that isn’t stated, and accept the uncorroborated testimony of law enforcement officials.  All of these tendencies are evident in the responses to the Brandon Ross story.

 Publication bias places those charged with criminal behavior at a societal disadvantage. Based on a news article, a verdict is declared in the minds of readers long before a trial occurs (if the case ever goes to trial).

In one response, a verdict has clearly been reached in the mind of the respondent:

I’m sorry, we’re talking about armed robbers right? We are talking about children, though young, made a grave error in judgment. If you are a police officer and someone points a gun at you, turns a round with a gun in hand what action would you take? The thing about first news reports is that another story surfaces a few weeks or months later and we get the real scoop.

This comment unashamedly admits the commentators presumption of guilt: “we are talking about armed robbers right?”. While no conviction has been made, the young men wear the title “armed robbers”. Williams, may his soul find peace and freedom from terror, is no longer with us to defend himself. Yet in his grave he bears the label “armed robber”.

Ross, on the other hand, has breath in his body to deliver his testimony. Unfortunately, before his words are made public, it is presumed that he “made a grave error in judgment”. The mere fact that a person has been charged with a crime can stain them forever. This sort of publication bias can cause unbearable damage in the lives of the accused.

In her book “The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander describes a scenario in which:

You are indicted on felony charges.  After a month of being held in jail, the charges against you are dropped.  You are technically free, but as a result of your arrest and period of incarceration, you lose your job, your apartment, your furniture, and your car. ( pg 96)

Not only do you lose your possessions, you lose your dignity. Stigma can be extremely damaging. The quote does not capture the extent to which stigmatization is present nor its implications. Stigma breeds stereotyping. Many young black men have been stopped and searched by police officers for no apparent reason expect that they “fit the description” (that is, the stereotype) of a criminal.

With the increase in media surrounding the war on drugs in the 1990’s, it appeared that the crime rate was increasing, specifically in poor black communities. This assumption is false. Drug crime was on the decline during this era not increasing.  (Alexander, pg 7)

Publication bias justified an unwarranted “War on Drugs”, contributing to mass incarceration.  Numerous newspaper articles portrayed young black men as drug kingpins and gangsters, yet the majority of drug arrests were for minor possession of drugs.

These stereotypes have not disappeared. As young black men die on inner city streets, titles like “armed robbers” live on.

Published information, reports what the author gathers.  As the respondent alluded, in his comment, stories change and new evidence comes forth with the passage of time. The truth may never be known. Without truth the perplexities lie between the words on the page and the reader.

When Jesus’ perplexed disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, he said: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”  It takes more than seeing and hearing to understand. Analysis, critical thought, and curiosity are essential.  However, a humility that recognizes that news articles can never tell the complete story is also required. Before rushing to judgment, remember there is always more to these stories than meets the eye.

One thought on “Publication Bias

  1. Canada and Europe pay, train, and screen candidates for police better than the US. There is more of a philosophy that a police officer must have an extremely low-key temperament, and ability to handle situations verbally to scale down confrontations to prevent violence whenever possible. We do have multiethnic urban areas with severe poverty, homelessness, and gangs, and police are armed, although not everyone in all departments carries a taser. Readers of this story assume that the fleeing teen who was in posession of the gun threatened the officer with it before being shot, or at least, was holding it. I’m not sure that was the case. Most police die on the job in motor vehicle incidents–quite often killed while at the side of the highway at work. This doesn’t quite square with the utility of sending teens to prison for life because they were in on a mugging with their buddy who was shot by the police. I’m not making assumptions about the judgement of the officer, in the particular situation; I’m just saying that this article is right, people make assumptions based on what they read (and more), and there were reasons why the juvenile justice system was set up that may be irrelevant to the DA laying these charges (being tough on a newsworthy crime, and shoaling up the police department’s credibility).

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