“Teens and Torture”: More Atrocious “Alternative Media” Misreporting on Youth – Features Dubious Survey

“Teens and Torture”: More Atrocious “Alternative Media” Misreporting on Youth – Features Dubious Survey

April 22, 2011

Lying about teenagers is a mainstream media epidemic (see repeated debunkings throughout this site). But any hope that the so-called progressive and alternative media would observe higher ethical standards has also been dashed—most recently by the mindlessly sloppy, agenda-dictated misreporting of Daniel Stone of the Daily Beast, aped by Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post, that “60 percent of young people support torture.”

Neither reporter evidently bothered to actually read, let alone critically scrutinize (how, exactly, is the “alternative media” an “alternative”?), the Red Cross “study.” The Red Cross press release revealed its study was intended to sell the agency’s curriculum, “Exploring Humanitarian Law,” and related books and videos to high school social studies and history classes. That the Humanitarian Law course may well be a valuable educational resource is not the issue; the question is the Red Cross’s openly commercial tactics and Stone’s and Linkins’ abandonment of journalistic skepticism that should be aroused when “surveys” are used to sell products.

Worse, our repeated efforts to obtain details about this survey through the Red Cross media office–especially those allegedly reporting “statistically significant differences among sub-groups within each sample (e.g. gender, age, military experience)” that its report claims “have been noted, where appropriate” but which are nowhere presented–have received no response.

Legitimate surveyors are happy to provide details of surveys; those that are not are usually running the types of scams we encounter repeatedly in analysis of statements about youth. It appears the Red Cross survey on torture, as presented by that organization, is a scam intended to sell a product. It was leaked to reporters like Daniel Stone and Jason Linkins who can be counted on to tamely regurgitate the agency’s views to push their own agendas while asking no skeptical questions.

One major clue is that even based on the scant information provided, the Red Cross survey did NOT find that “the post-9/11 generation is in favor of gruesome interrogation techniques” or “support torture,” as Stone declared. Nor did it find that teens are “significantly more in favor of torture than older adults,” nor that “Americans’ opinions on torture seem to have fractured largely on generational lines.”

The Red Cross pollsters asked, “To what extent is it acceptable for soldiers and fighters to take the following actions in war?” On the key question, it reported that 40% of 12-17 year-olds and 45% of adults 18 and older answered that “torturing captured enemy soldiers or fighters in order to get important military information” is “never acceptable” (the remainder either thought torture was acceptable in some instances or weren’t sure whether it was). This narrow margin is invalid on its face. The poll’s margin of error (plus or minus 3 points for adults and 4 points for teenagers) yields confidence intervals on that question of 36% to 44% for teens, and 42% to 48% for adults.

When confidence intervals overlap as in this case, the findings are not statistically significant. There were no grounds for the Red Cross’s, Stone’s, or Linkins’ claims of a significant generational difference in rejecting torture–let alone all the wild implications they concocted from this non-finding.

Strangely, the Red Cross did not directly ask whether respondents personally favored torture or other anti-humanitarian acts of war, though it easily could have. Its passively worded question did not specify to whom torture would be “acceptable.” In light of the Bush administration’s clear acceptance of torture and Obama officials’ tacit acceptance of torture implicit in their refusal to prosecute or even investigate Bush-era war crimes, respondents would be amply justified in interpreting the correct answer to the Red Cross question as yes, torture is officially “acceptable.” Whether or not the survey respondent personally supports torture was not what the question definitively asked. Surveyors who ask ambiguous questions such as these are seeking to elicit maximum responses they know careless reporters will reliably embellish further.

Adding to its ambiguity, the survey did not present breakdowns of the adult sample into separate age groups, nor did it specify responses by gender, or race/ethnicity even though the report mentioned this information was available (Stone and Linkins give no indication of having examined it). These are standard demographic breakdowns necessary to establishing which characteristics predicted responses—ones the Red Cross curiously omitted. Youth populations differ sharply from adult populations in gender, racial, poverty status, and (of course) educational attainment and military training breakdowns. Nor did the poll separate answers by age according to its own questions regarding respondents’ knowledge of the Geneva Conventions and international laws even though it found military and non-military respondents differed greatly on that subject. The poll’s lack of statistical transparency should have aroused reporter skepticism, not sycophancy.

That the Red Cross poll was a sales pitch to sell a product to schools—perhaps a good and beneficial product, but a sales pitch nonetheless—explains its serious limitations and market-hawking presentation. The ambiguity of the Red Cross questions and statistics would require, at least, a follow-up study with specific questions and focus groups allowing elaboration before the kinds of statements Stone and Linkins manufactured would constitute ethical journalism.

But the problem is worse still. Both reporters and their sources used the faulty Red Cross poll to push pet “culture war” peeves centered on the myth of cultural-instigated generational deterioration, all without a glimmer of evidence. Instead of applying critical analysis or exploring alternatives, Stone and Linkins invented wholesale “reasons” to “explain” their flatly false claim that “teenagers support torture” while adults do not. They and their sources provided no evidence that youth today advocate torture any more than adults or past generations did, which is impossible to determine from this survey. Instead, they repeated the standard myth that the past must have been a golden time of “empathy” in which torture was “stigmatized,” a humanitarianism that is now being “lost.” For an example from Stone’s article:

Legal scholars see societal influences that may be responsible for de-stigmatizing torture, including increasingly graphic media. “I think it suggests the national conscious is becoming more and more corroded and more accustomed to the violation of fundamental principles of human rights and international law,” says Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, who blames programs like 24 that trivialize serious issues.

Do the reporters or Tribe present any evidence that the “national conscious [sic] is becoming more and more corroded,” let alone that “increasingly graphic media” such as “24” and torture-denying mainstream news treatments (media sanitizing of the torture issue may be based in research, but no one has shown that adolescents are avid followers of mainstream news reportage), have anything to do with attitudes on torture? Not the tiniest iota. Note here that the mammoth declines in actual violent crime and victimization by teenagers, especially for murder and rape, that challenge claims of pop-culture-driven generational callousness have proven so threatening to culture warriors on the Right and Left alike that real youth trends have effectively been banished from news media discussion.

Instead of discussing real issues like poverty, domestic violence, parental addiction and criminality, documentable generational attitudes and trends, and defunding of opportunity that progressives used to care about, the Huffington Post’s “teenagers” link features a raft of primitive, stereotypical yuppie frettings with titles like, “’Hunger Games’: Why Kids Love Disaster, Distress and Dystopia,” “Don’t Guess, Drug Test!”, “I’m Competing with My Son’s Friends for His Attention (and the Friends Are Winning),” and “5 New Facts About Today’s Teenagers” (most merely context-free author prejudices). What poisonous crap—and these are the supposed leftists!

Progressive/alternative journalism about youth remains atrocious, spreading rampant fear, lies, unfounded speculations, recycled self-interested agendas, culture war alarmism, and crude prejudices about young people that would be branded hate speech if inflicted on any other group in society. Ariana Huffington, why do your progressive ideals switch off when youth are the subject?

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