Mutant stat: 4.2% of American kids witnessed a shooting last year

Here is how a mutant statistic about the exposure of children to shootings came to be:

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They gathered data by conducting phone interviews with parents and kids around the country.

The Finkelhor study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

The findings were then reinterpreted:

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

The CDC-UT researchers also quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly:

“Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.”

The reinterpreted findings were picked up by the media:

The Dallas Morning News picked up a version of the Washington Post story.

When the Dallas Morning News figured out something was up (due to a question raised by a reader) and asked about the origins of the statistic, they uncovered some confusion:

According to Finkelhor, the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

This appears to be a classic example of a mutant statistic as described by sociologist Joel Best in Damned Lies and Statistics. As Best explains, it doesn’t take much for a number to be unintentionally twisted such that it becomes nonsensical yet interesting to the public because it seems shocking. And while the Dallas Morning News might deserve some credit for catching the issue and trying to set the record straight, the incorrect statistic is now in the public and can easily be found.

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