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WashPost ombudsman admits that its viral rape-statistics graphic was basically phony

December 8, 2014

Those pale brown little guys on the graphic turn out to be mostly imaginary:

On Jan. 7, an infographic citing rape statistics appeared on Wonkblog in a post written by Dylan Matthews, who came to The Post last year after graduating from Harvard.

 The Enliven Project, a new nonprofit advocacy group that promotes more open discussion of sexual violence, produced the infographic. After being directed to it by a tweetfrom Laura Bassett, a reporter who covers politics and women’s issues for the Huffington Post, Matthews put the infographic on Wonkblog. It ran with a short introduction and the headline, “The saddest graph you’ll see today.”

***

I read the studies that underlay the infographic and its critiques. Individually, some of the statistics that Enliven used do appear in the studies. But Enliven made assumptions and extrapolations in consolidating this information into one graphic, rendering it misleading.

A Post editor read through the blog post before it was published. Matthews later updated it with a couple of sentences that included this: “Rape statistics are notoriously hard to collect. . . . [B]e aware that the exact numbers are subject to dispute.”

He did e-mail Enliven to get more from them on their methodology, but the blog post was published before Enliven replied. “In retrospect, my main regret was that we published before we got a reply,” Matthews said. “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have posted, but I would have done so with the kind of caveats that eventually made it into the post.”

He did e-mail Enliven to get more from them on their methodology, but the blog post was published before Enliven replied. “In retrospect, my main regret was that we published before we got a reply,” Matthews said. “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have posted, but I would have done so with the kind of caveats that eventually made it into the post.”

The blog post generated a lot of Web hits for The Post and the Enliven Project. It stirred controversy and discussion of sexual violence. But it damaged Wonkblog’s credibility, and that of The Post, and harmed the legitimate issue of addressing violence against women.

Real reporting takes time, analysis, and inquiry. Post bloggers need to be more careful.

The obvious problems with the graphic:
1. If the rapes aren’t reported, how do we know they happened?
2. And how do we know how many in any of the groups–except maybe for the ones who actually were reported–were “falsely accused”?
Plus, all you have to do is visit the Enliven Project website to see that the graphics there are mostly wishful thinking.
Posted by Charlotte Allen
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3 Comments
  1. Thanks for writing about this; I’ve been wondering for ages how anyone actually knows the percentage of rapes that go unreported. It’s good to see I’m not alone.

  2. Hi there. It’s Sarah from The Enliven Project. I just wanted to reach out, and thank you for spending some time and attention on the issue of sexual violence. The graphic you reference, and the other tools and resources on my site, were all made to start a conversation, not to end one. It’s unfortunate that others have used them to shut down dialogue or oversimplify what we know are more complicated discussions. I appreciate you doing that here. Please feel free to reach out with other thoughts or feedback. All best, Sarah

    • Thanks for the input, Sarah. The problem is that when something is presented in graph form, it doesn’t look like a conversation. It looks like hard numbers that are either correct or incorrect.

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