Press releases make for fishy statistics

September 25, 2013
Red snapper at the Maine Avenue Fish Market (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Red snapper at the Maine Avenue Fish Market in Washington, D.C. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

In a Slate magazine article about taking care of your Facebook account after you’re dead, Naomi Cahn and Amy Ziettlow write:

Like most Americans, our loved ones will most likely access more than two dozen password-protected sites on different computers and a smartphones, storing and sharing the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical details of life while connecting with family and friends. The average American values his or her digital assets, such as photo libraries, personal communication, and entertainment files, at about $55,000, a value based on sentimental attachments as well as financial investments in music, application, and software purchases. . . .

I was reading this and thought, “$55,000? Huh?” There’s no way that “financial investments in music, application, and software purchases” could come even close to that for the average person, so it’s gotta be coming from those “sentimental attachments.” Where does this number come from?

I followed the link, which takes me to a press release from www.mcafee.com:

Research firm MSI International surveyed more than 3,000 consumers in 10 countries about the financial value they would assign to digital assets such as photo libraries, personal information, and entertainment files, as well as their attitudes toward protecting them across computers, tablets and smartphones.

 

“Most parents wouldn’t dream of leaving a stack of their child’s photos, their family bank statements, online passwords and other personal information just lying around for strangers to sift through,” said Jennifer Jolly, consumer technology expert. “But that’s what you’re risking when you walk around with unprotected smartphones, tablets and other digital devices. Your digital assets are precious, why wouldn’t you safeguard them?”

It’s like something out of the Onion. Which I suppose is no surprise, given that press releases and Onion articles are both written in the style of conventional new stories.

The press release has some shocking news:

Despite the high value of their digital assets, people still aren’t securing every device they own. The McAfee survey found that more than a third of people (36 percent) don’t have security protection on all of their devices and seven percent have no protection at all – leaving potentially thousands of dollars worth of digital assets at risk, if stored on an unprotected device.

Luckily, the press release offers a solution:

McAfee is addressing the growing digital needs of today’s consumers by launching McAfee All Access; the industry’s first cross-device security solution that protects multiple Internet-enabled devices (PCs, Macs, smartphones, netbooks and tablets) under one annual plan.

I can’t blame Heinlein McAfee for writing a press release. But a writer for Slate should know enough to see through the pitch, rather than just grabbing a fishy statistic that happens to fit the story.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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Erik Voeten · September 25, 2013