REPORTING ON VIOLENCE

Resources

HOW TO EVALUATE A STUDY

Research that is the most valid and useful to a journalist should be published in a peer-reviewed journal using the latest accepted statistical methods.

SOME GUIDELINES

...adapted from Seeing Through Statistics, by Dr. Jessica Utts, professor of statistics at the University of California, Davis. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1996.

Determine whether the research was an observational study, an experiment, a sample survey, a combination or just based on anecdotes. It is important to note that because of the nature of violence, most violence research is observational not experimental. That means that researchers who do observational studies cannot directly attribute a cause to an effect. All they can do is link factors to effects. For example, until 1996, when scientists could specifically demonstrate changes on a cellular level, scientific research could only link smoking to lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, albeit with great confidence.

 

Observational study:
Resembles an experiment except that the manipulation occurs naturally rather than being imposed by the experimenter. For example, researchers could note the birth weight of infants born to mothers who smoked, but they can't experimentally manipulate mothers to smoke. Similarly, researchers can note that an increase in homicides among youth has paralleled the increase in the manufacture and availability of handguns known as Saturday night specials, but they can't experimentally give youth in one city Saturday night specials and take them away from youth in another city to show a direct cause and effect.
Experiment:
Measures the effect of manipulating a variable in some way. For example, receiving a drug or medical treatment, going through a training program, eating a special diet, etc. One of the few experiments to be done in evaluating prevention programs for juvenile delinquents was one by the Oregon Social Learning Center and is described in the Prevention Approaches section in this book. (see page 135)
Sample survey:
A subgroup of a large population is questioned on a set of topics. The results are used as if they were representative of the larger population, which they will be if the sample was chosen correctly. Used in political and opinion polls. The National Crime Victimization Survey, administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice and detailed in the Violence Data Resources section of this book, is a good example of a survey used to gather information about crime in the United States.
Anecdotes:
They may or may not be representative of an outcome. They are just descriptions of the actions of one or a small number of individuals.

To familiarize yourself with the research, consider the seven critical components:

Component 1:
The source of the research and funding. For example, if it is a firearms study, is it being funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Rifle Association?
Component 2:
The researchers who had contact with the participants. Participants will often give answers or behave in ways to try to please the researchers. For example, if law enforcement officials administer the National Crime Victimization Survey, people are less likely to be honest about certain risk factors, such as whether they use illegal drugs.
Component 3:
The individuals or objects studied and how they were selected. For example, if only men in prisons are interviewed about alcohol use and family violence, then the study is biased because those interviewed are the people who are more likely to be convicted, including those to whom juries are not sympathetic or those who live in counties or cities where police departments do not enforce a pro-arrest policy for family violence.
Component 4:
The exact nature of the measurements made or questions asked. For example, if you wanted to do a survey on attitudes about family violence, how would you define family violence or abuse? Is it when a man hits a woman? Does screaming at her and threatening physical harm, even though he says he would not hit her, constitute abuse? Is spanking a child with a hand abuse? Is spanking a child with a belt abuse? In addition, the wording and the ordering of the questions influence answers. For example, a question about "street people" and violent incidents would probably elicit a different response than a question about violence and "families who have no home."
Component 5:
The setting in which the measurements were taken. A study can be easily biased by timing, if, for example, opinions about the "three-strikes" law were sought after a highly publicized kidnapping or murder. Or, if interviewers ask a woman questions about abuse when her husband is in the same room, she is likely to answer differently than if alone with the understanding that she will not be identified.
Component 6:
The extraneous differences in groups being compared. For example, in 28 studies that examined the drinking patterns of groups of people convicted of assault, researchers found that 24 percent to 84 percent of the offenders and 24 percent to 40 percent of the victims had been drinking. Were there differences among those groups to account for the range in alcohol use?
Component 7:
The magnitude of any claimed effects or differences. To judge whether the results of a study have any practical importance, you have to know how large the effects were. For example, in the 28 studies that examined the drinking patterns of groups of people convicted for assault, the range of reported drinking was huge - from 24 percent to 84 percent. More information must be known about the studies to determine whether the studies have practical importance, including knowing how many people were in the groups.

 

Determine if the information is complete.
If necessary, see if you can either find the original source of the report or contact the authors for missing information.
Ask if the results make sense in the larger scope of things.
If they are counter to previously accepted knowledge, see if you can learn anything about possible explanations from the authors.
Ask yourself if you can think of an alternative explanation for the results and check it out with the researchers as well as experts in the field who have reviewed the research.
Determine if the results are meaningful enough to encourage you to change your lifestyle, attitudes or beliefs on the basis of the research.

 

WATCH OUT FOR:

Observational studies that draw a cause-and-effect conclusion:
Only experiments can establish cause and effect. Observational studies make correlations; that is, they can say that they can observe a relationship between variables. But a correlation does not mean that a researcher can say that a particular event actually caused the response. For example, researchers can report an increase in homicides at the same time they observe more Saturday night specials available in a community, but they cannot say the increase in the number of guns caused the increase in homicides. However, the researchers may state that they observe a strong (or weak) relationship between the two variables, homicides and gun availability. Remember that most violence research is, by its very nature, observational not experimental, and so direct cause and effect will seldom, if ever, be established.
Nonrepresentative samples:
Are the people or objects representative of the larger group for which conclusions are to be drawn? For example, in a study of family violence, if researchers choose only families in East Palo Alto, then the sample would not be valid for the population at large in San Mateo County, because the income level and the ethnic makeup are not representative of the whole county.
Samples that are too small:
In this study of family violence, interviewing members of one family from each city in San Mateo County would not be enough to represent the population at large. But how many are enough? That depends on the range within the variables identified as significant within the population. The more diverse the variables are within each group, the larger the sample size needs to be to detect differences among the groups.
Volunteer or convenience samples:
If a magazine or television station runs a survey and asks readers or viewers to respond, the results only reflect the opinions of those who decide to respond. The responding group is not representative of any larger group. Neither are convenient or haphazard samples, such as person-on-the-street interviews.
Nonexpert opinions:
Opinions about research from people who are not familiar with the research or educated in the statistical methods used in the research. For example, the opinion of an attorney who has not done statistical research or been educated in its methods is useful and appropriate if the comment concerns the policy implications of a particular study but not the validity of the study itself.

3/12/99