The myth of government source reliability

When we teach speech students about evaluating sources, we usually tell them that government figures are more reliable than others. We teach journalism students the same thing. Maybe the operative word here is “more” and “than others.”

The greater lesson, perhaps, is to be skeptical of anything that any source tells you until you see the original data and understand how it was gathered and what it means.

As FOXNews reports in The Myth of 90 Percent, a “fact” that has been floated around by a whole bunch of government officials and passed on uncritically by a number of media outlets is just flat wrong, i.e., the “fact” that 90% of the guns used in Mexican crime comes from the United States.

It’s not just a little wrong. It’s a lot wrong. A more accurate way to look at the facts is this: about 17% of recovered weapons used in a crime in Mexico could be traced to the U.S.

So were the other folks lying? That’s hard to say. Intentionally misleading? Perhaps that is more likely, but difficult to prove.

In any case, reporters and speakers need to take on the task of digging into the statement to, first of all, double-check what is actually being said, and then to check the accuracy.

The 90% figure actually has a basis in the reports, and it is this: In one particular year, Mexico seized 29,000 weapons used in a crime. Mexico sent 11,000 of them to the U.S. for tracing by the ATF. Only 6,000 of those were traceable. 90% of the ones they could trace came from the U.S.

Why only 11,000 sent for tracing? Because it was obvious to the Mexican authorities that the other 18,000 were not from the U.S. Even if you hypothesize that all of the suspected U.S. weapons actually did come from the U.S. (which is a big, big stretch), that means that only 38% could have come from the U.S.

The 5,000 that were untraceable (lack of serial numbers, usually) are a gray area–without doubt, some come from the U.S., and equally without doubt, some do not. Only 6,000 (17%) are confirmed to have originated in the U.S. And that’s a very different figure than what has been bandied about.

Again, they’re not exactly lying, because it is an actual figure. But whenever a source “spins” the data, you need to ask what the agenda is. That, in turn, will grealy affect the credibility of the source. And if you use such a source, it is going to greatly affect your credibility. Make sure you check.

Just to illustrate: the story points out an interesting inconsistency:

In a remarkable claim, Auturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said Mexico seizes 2,000 guns a day from the United States — 730,000 a year. That’s a far cry from the official statistic from the Mexican attorney general’s office, which says Mexico seized 29,000 weapons in all of 2007 and 2008.

Think there might be a hidden agenda there somewhere? And yet many reporters and speakers will simply quote the “2,000 guns a day” statement without doing any thinking at all about the implications. This is why educators need to be teaching more about critical thinking skills.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.