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A High Percentage of Attention

By Michael Getler
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page B06

The three stories that readers most focused on last week all dealt with numbers and statistics.

The first, on the front page Dec. 18, was the fifth installment of an occasional series "about changes in the middle of the U.S. workforce." This one focused on "The Black Workforce" and its "Tenuous Hold on the Middle Class."

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Some readers, including this one, were critical of the first installment in this series back in September in which accompanying statistics seemed to show a more positive picture about middle-class incomes than the gloomier portrait painted in the story.

Last Saturday's report was meant to focus on the struggles of African American families who, "reaching the middle-income rung . . . are finding it a hollow promise." This conclusion may be true, and is surely a worthy topic. But again, the statistics and the choice of the family that was the focal point of the story raised more questions in the minds of several readers.

The story and accompanying statistics showed that median household income for blacks is up 47 percent from 1967, compared with 31 percent for whites. More importantly, the woman who was the focal point of the story has a master's degree in human resources and, combined with her husband, has a household income of more than $60,000 a year. That is about 33 percent more than the median household figure for whites. The family also has debts of $80,000 -- student loans, car loans and credit card debt. How much of each is not explained. There is no mortgage debt. "They are living wildly above their means," one reader concluded. "If I had debt of 133 percent of my annual income (aside from mortgage debt) I'd jump off the roof." The family lives in Florida, which caused some readers to ask why a local family wasn't chosen and others to point out there is no state income tax in Florida and that living costs there are lower than in this area.

This story contained many good insights. But the focus on a family that makes more money than most households of all races, and the failure to explain in more detail where their money goes, are flaws that diminish the theme. "It just doesn't add up," one reader said. "Without further data, The Post story is just not credible."

The next day, The Post spread across the top of the Sunday front page the first of a three-part series titled "Pregnancy and Homicide/The Unknown Toll." The banner headline read: "Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths." There is not enough room in this column to do justice to the content of this series or to discuss the pros and cons of those who wrote to me with critical comments.

The Post, and reporter Donna St. George, produced a prodigious, valuable, year-long but timely journalistic effort. Told mostly through dramatic accounts, it documented, well beyond recent daily headlines, the extent to which homicides against pregnant women and new mothers occur in this country, a far greater extent than most of us probably realize.

The criticism that seemed most worthy of attention was directed at the statistical underpinnings of the project, especially those statistics that were not in the articles, and the cautions about the data. Those cautions -- that there was a risk of overstating the problem and that a significant number of deaths by violence did not seem to be related to childbearing -- were included but were skipped over quickly. The subject and the series -- focusing on "the hidden risks of pregnancy" and with that big headline emphasizing the "many" who "die violent deaths" -- both informed and alarmed.

But, as one critic put it, the series "has no statistics to demonstrate that homicide is a greater risk to pregnant women than to non-pregnant women." Several readers cited Justice Department statistics that murder rates among both men and women have been falling steadily for more than a decade, and that murder rates among "intimates" have also been falling. Others said that teenage pregnancy and other inherently risky conditions do not imply "a higher risk of homicide among pregnant women generally," as one put it.

On Monday, the headline at the top left-hand side of the front page said, "Poll Sees Split on Stadium Funding." It was above a story that said: "District residents are closely divided on the future of the Washington Nationals, with slightly more than half supporting private financing for a new stadium even if such a requirement means losing the team, according to a new Washington Post survey." The survey found that 53 percent took the position described in the lead. Even more, 56 percent, favored the idea of requiring private financing to pay for half the cost of a new baseball stadium when the question was asked without the idea of losing the team.

"I have great respect for your polling," one reader wrote, "however, the headline and lead today completely misrepresent the results of your own poll." His point was that the data showed not only that 56 percent and 53 percent backed the D.C. Council's effort to force some private financing, but also that only 41 percent, in both questions, disapproved. In other words, a reader argued, "a 15-point margin is not 'closely divided.' This is a solid majority."

The small print that accompanied a poll graphic said it had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points and cautioned that it was an overnight survey, which can introduce other errors. Yet critics saw the handling of the story as another sign of "a pro-MLB [Major League Baseball] bias" in The Post's coverage from the start. "The fact is the poll shows what most people can sense," one reader wrote. "The D.C. public is not that closely divided on the stadium deal. A clear majority opposes the deal Mayor Williams negotiated. Most D.C. taxpayers don't think they should pay for a stadium when they've seen business leaders like Abe Pollin and Jack Kent Cooke step up to the plate and pay for their own facilities."

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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