Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mythbusting in action

Over the past few months, I have been focusing primarily on a number of sex offender myths typically propagated by the media. For those who were unable to attend the 2013 RSOL Conference, I have made my presentation at the conference available both on YouTube and on my website.

I have given a number of tips on how to become a myth buster at the end of my presentation; the most important tips I gave was to consider your source and read the original source material. I have discovered that often times, media reports tend to get things wrong. There are a number of reasons why the media would get a written report wrong. Those in the media are tasks with giving a very brief article on a lengthy research report. Reporters often have short deadlines, so they do not have the time to read a 30 to 100 page report, so chances are they rarely read beyond the summary pages. Spellcheckers may catch grammatical errors, but they do not always catch information that is inaccurate, so at times, glaring errors are sometimes overlooked.

I wish to take a moment to walk you through the process of myth busting by looking at an article forwarded to me this afternoon.

The article I am dissecting today was published by the website Breitbart.com; it is a prime example of shoddy reporting. Earlier, I mentioned “consider the source.” What is Breitbart? Breitbart.com is a conservative news and opinion website founded by Andrew Breitbart, former journalist for the Washington Times. It is, in essence, an independent Internet news site. Thus, the standards of journalism found at this site are likely of lower standards than those of the mass media. Brietbart.com was also been embroiled in controversy over the years, including a number of hoaxes and a doctored video that caused problems for the group ACORN.

Yesterday, Breitbart.com published an article entitled “FEDS RELEASE THOUSANDS OF IMMIGRANTS WHO ARE SEX OFFENDERS” by Tony Lee [Link: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2013/09/16/Feds-Release-Thousands-of-Immigrants-Who-Are-Sex-Offenders]. Lee had also published three other articles that day. The article begins with an ominous statement highlighted by its larger size and use of bold script:

The United States government has released nearly 3,000 immigrant sex offenders, some of whom were illegal immigrants, since September 2012. Of those, nearly 3,000, or about 5%, were not even properly registered with local authorities as sex offenders.”

You notice something off about this statement? Look at the numbers. How much is 5% of 3000? I am pretty sure the answer is not 3000. Judging by the following comment, this simple gaffe has the potential to amplify the panic effect this article is trying to achieve:

TennesseeRedDog  mush57 • 7 hours ago −
5% of the 60,000 total is = ~3,000 sex offenders who were not registered at all. That is the only way the math works. But that is not the way it was written. "... of those" should refer to the total of 60,000 who were released. [Comment Link: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2013/09/16/Feds-Release-Thousands-of-Immigrants-Who-Are-Sex-Offenders#comment-1048243101]

TennesseeRedDog’s problem is not his math or his grammar. The problem lies in his reading comprehension skills. The next statement in the article states the following:

According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week, "nearly 3,000 sex offenders are part of the 59,347 immigrants who the courts have ruled cannot be held" as of September 2012 because they were unable to be sent home. These immigrants were released "under some sort of supervision." As Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times noted, though, the GAO concluded that ‘about 5 percent of the time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t ensure that the immigrants released were properly registered with local authorities as sex offenders’.”

The article states that “nearly 3,000 sex offenders” are “part of the 59,347 immigrants” released by the
government. Only about 3,000 of nearly 60,000 immigrants temporarily detained by the government were “sex offenders.” The 3000 number is a rounded total of registrants, not a subgroup of a larger number of registrants. The fact that 3,000 is 5% of 60,000 is a mere coincidence. Five percent of 3,000 is 150.

At this point, I'd like to point out the Breitbart.com article is a rewrite of a Washington Times article; the Times article does not round up the numbers. The Times article sets the actual number of registrants as 2,837, so 5% of that number is 142. The Times article does not include the gaffe in the Breitbart.com article. It is interesting that the only changes made by the Breitbart.com reporter made the myth worse.

So where did this “5% of the time immigrant registrants are not registering” claim originate? The article claims the source was from a recently released study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Indeed, the GAO just released an article entitled “SEX OFFENDERS: ICE Could Better Inform Offenders It Supervises of Registration Responsibilities and Notify Jurisdictions when Offenders Are Removed.” This is where reading the source material now becomes important:


What GAO Found
On the basis of GAO’s analysis of a representative sample of 131 alien sex offenders under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supervision, GAO estimates that as of September 2012, 72 percent of alien sex offenders were registered, 22 percent were not required to register, and 5 percent did not register but should have. According to officials, offenders were not required to register for various reasons, such as the offense not requiring registration in some states. Of the 6 offenders in GAO’s sample that should have registered, officials from ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ICE-ERO) field offices informed 4 of their registration requirements. However, officials at some of these field offices identified several reasons why they did not ensure that these offenders actually registered. For example, the offender may have moved and no longer resided in the area of responsibility for that particular field office. ICE had not informed the remaining 2 offenders of their registration requirements.

In any study, sample size is important. The larger the sample size, the less likely a solitary case will greatly influence the numbers. The sample size of the GAO study is 131. Therefore, adding one registrant to the number of those who “should have registered but didn't” greatly increases the overall number. Six of the 131 registrants “should have registered but didn't,” or 4.6%. Percentage points are a bigger deal when we're discussing larger numbers. Remember when I divided 3000 by 5% earlier? The more accurate formula is now 2,837 divided by 4.5%; now the magic number is 128 (22 less than our first estimate). These are indeed very small numbers.

Of course, the real issue is the Breitbart.com article scares us with “thousands of immigrant sex offenders (scary), SOME OF THEM ILLEGAL (even scarier), are released by the feds (OM-f’ing-G!).” The study is not clear how many of them are here “illegally.” The GAO report does discuss the process by which immigrants are eligible for deportation and the limitations on that ability below:

The Enforcement and Removal Operations directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE-ERO) is responsible for the identification, apprehension, detention, and removal of removable aliens. ICE-ERO prioritizes the removal of convicted criminals, among other groups. However, there are circumstances in which criminal aliens who have been ordered removed from the United States—including those convicted of a sex offense—cannot be removed. For example, a criminal alien may not be removed because the designated country will not accept the alien’s return. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Zadvydas v. Davis imposes strict limits on ICE’s ability to detain aliens beyond 6 months after the issuance of a final order of removal if removal is not significantly likely in the reasonably foreseeable future. In these instances, ICE-ERO may release the alien into the community under an order of supervision. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), of the 59,347 aliens under an order of supervision as of September 2012, 2,837 (5 percent) of them had been convicted of a sex offense.

The bottom line is the Breitbart.com article cannot accurately portray the source material, since the author did not even read the source material. It is the online equivalent of the “telephone game.” Remember my myth busting tips—consider your sources and read the source material. The article caters to the conservative (assumed anti-immigration) crowd. The article expects the reader to fill in the blanks and, judging by many of the posts in the comments section, most have bought the hype.


Myth busting isn’t easy but it can be learned. It takes critical thinking, reading comprehension, dusting off your math skills, and taking the time to follow the information back to its source. If you want to learn more, be sure to visit my Sex Offender Myth Busterspage on Once Fallen and/or watch my presentation from the RSOL Conference, also available online. 

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