More fake news from the New York Times

First published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
Written by Quentin Langley

“Amid ‘Trump Effect’ Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants” says a headline in the New York Times. Let’s start with the weasel word at the beginning. Any change in the number of college applications is “amid” all sorts of things: weather trends, campus zero tolerance policies for homophobia and, of course, the fact that Donald Trump is president. That the Times chooses to assert – in a news story, not a comment column – a link is purely speculative.

The claim that almost 40% of colleges report a dip in foreign applications turns out to be true. The figure is actually 39% in a legitimate survey. But, hang on, what about the other 61%? In a story of over 1300 words, the Times doesn’t get round to mentioning what they report. In theory, the figure of 39% reporting a decline is compatible with 61% reporting a rise. Actually, the number reporting a rise turns out to be 35%, with 26% reporting no change. So maybe there has been a small decline. After all, 39% is bigger than 35%.

But all colleges are not the same size and do not have the same number of foreign applications. The colleges did not report by how much their applications had gone up or down. The 26% who reported no change are unlikely to have had exactly the same number of applications as last year. So someone had to decide whether to classify roughly the same number as “no change” or a small fall/rise. There is probably no consistency about this.

This is a clear example of fake news. A literal non-story – “college applications may be up, down, or about the same” – has been given space in a formerly reputable newspaper. The “fall”, which cannot be justified on the facts, is linked to a figure of 40%, which rather implies that the fall itself is big. After all, if 40% of colleges had reported a decline and literally all of the others reported roughly the same as last year with none reporting a rise, that would suggest a significant fall. And that is what people would be likely to assume not only from the sensationalist headline but from the entire 1300 word article.

And then there is the causal link. There is anecdotal evidence – a statement from an admissions tutor – that makes that link, but it is very weak, and doesn’t justify being in the headline, even you assume this story was worth writing in the first place. If college professors and administrators are as liberal as journalists – and they are – then both the fall and the causal link are coming from very dodgy sources.

Responsible journalists should not allow their hostility to the President to affect their news writing. A trend for which there is literally no evidence and a reason for the trend which has barely been explored both make the headline of a non-story. This columnist does not approve of Trump’s immigration policy, but before attributing any ill-effects to it your columnist is going to do something rather old-fashioned: look at the evidence.

Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it

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