Friday, May 12, 2006

Boston Globe non-story on NSA spying on Americans

"Most put security ahead of privacy," reads the headline on a Boston Globe article on disclosures that the National Security Agency is data-mining the phone calls of millions of Americans.

Interesting, if true. But what's the source for this claim? From what the story says, just a bunch of people the Globe interviewed Thursday. There's no mention of any attempt at getting a statistically valid sampling of the population.

Here's the giveaway quote:
"Those interviewed yesterday overwhelmingly said the possibility of phone companies handing over records to the government didn't alarm them and wouldn't make them walk away from any of the companies."

The story doesn't tell us how many people were interviewed, and how they were selected. It quotes just four people. Three said they weren't bothered by the snooping, one was.

In short, the story doesn't back up the claim in its headline.

This is the kind of meaningless non-story a newspaper like the Globe should be ashamed to run. It tells us nothing except that an editor wanted to give the impression of getting a local angle for a national story, but didn't want to commit the money for a scientifically valid survey.

I can't fault the reporter for the inaccurate headline, because reporters generally don't write their own headlines. But even so, the reporter should have stated how many people were contacted, and how they were selected. My wild-assed guess is the description would go along the lines of: "This story is based on opinions of people selected for their willingness to talk to a Globe reporter on deadline."

That wouldn't be very impressive, but it probably would be closer to the truth. Memo to Globe editors: this is not the kind of story that makes more people want to subscribe to your paper. My statement is based on an interview with one person (myself). It's just as scientific as the pathetic story you ran.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press story on the subject, while also unscientific, at least mentioned that fact and provided more evidence than the slap-dash Globe story.

"While it was too early to get a scientific read on the nation's thoughts on the program, interviews and a scan of closely watched Web logs appeared to indicate a split that mirrored opinions on the NSA wiretapping program disclosed late last year."

Cheers to the Associated Press reporter and jeers to the Boston Globe.

UPDATE: ABC and Washington Post did a poll that found most Americans do support the NSA spying on Americans.

Even better, the article reveals the poll's methodology and limitations:

"A total of 502 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night for this survey. Margin of sampling error is five percentage points for the overall results. The practical difficulties of doing a survey in a single night represents another potential source of error."

Great. My only complaint is that this is the story's last graf, and should be higher in the article.

ERRATUM: Fixed a mistaken reference to the poll, which I attributed to the Post and AP instead of the Post and ABC.

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