Monthly Archives: January 2015

That stomach-sinking feeling when data is wrong

That nagging feeling that something is wrong with the data? Listen to it.

When my colleague Marisol Bello asked whether we could figure out how often parents kill their children – she was reporting in the wake of a high-profile case in Georgia last summer – I knew we could probably find some help in the FBI’s supplemental homicide reports, which include victim/suspect relationship details. I ran the queries and came up with some preliminary figures, but I also knew the SHR was notoriously spotty, because many cities fail to provide details on murders.

So I started looking for other research on the topic, eventually digging up what can seem to be the gold standard of analysis: a piece co-authored by an Ivy League researcher, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. The only problem? The researchers had found six times as many filicides each year as I did in the FBI data.

I contacted the researchers. They hadn’t used the data directly from the FBI, but rather had used cleaned-up figures publically available from James Alan Fox and Marc Swatt of Northeastern University. That must account for the differences, they said.

But something kept bothering me: According to the researchers’ findings, 3,000 children each year were killed by their parents. Keep in mind that there are roughly 16,000 homicides each year. That would mean that 20% of all victims were children killed by a parent or stepparent. I covered the cops beat for the first four years of my career – I thought back to all the gang battles, lovers’ quarrels and drug deals gone wrong. I could count on one hand the number of child/parent murders I had seen. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near 20%.

So I followed the researchers’ lead, downloaded Fox and Swatt’s data and opened it in SPSS. It didn’t take long to realize each case number, which was supposed to be a unique ID, was in the file six times. A phone call to Fox, who walked me through the data, revealed the researchers’ mistake. Unlike the raw FBI file, Fox and Swatt’s dataset is built for advanced statistical analysis – it has multiple imputations to allow academic researchers to fill in holes that we know exist in FBI data, either where cases are missing entirely or where certain details (the relationship between victim and killer, for instance) aren’t included. Each killing was broken into six lines: the original record, and five different imputations with different weights applied and missing values filled in.

Fox walked me through a way to properly weight cases (his data set includes separate weights for national analysis and state-by-state analysis) and how to properly fill in gaps where relationship details weren’t provided in the raw data.

The upshot? I found that on average, about 450 children are killed by a parent or stepparent each year.

Brown University has since issued a correction to their press release on the researchers’ findings. Marisol and I used the data and our findings in a were published in USA TODAY, along with another follow-up story published later.

(a version of this post was published on the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project blog)

–Meghan Hoyer


Hey baby! What’s in a name

Earlier this year we published a story on the most popular 2014 baby names based on data from BabyCenter, a website that caters to expecting parents. It covers about 1 in 8 newborns.

Nothing wrong with that, but the names tend to skew white and trendy. We won’t have the complete 2014 list until spring, when the Social Security Administration publishes its own list, based on near-universal infant registration for SS numbers.

This is a baby. He was born in 2013 but he does not have a trendy name.
This is a baby. He was born in 2013 but he does not have a trendy name.

A comparison of 2013 top 10 boys’ lists shows, in order:

— BabyCenter: Jackson, Aiden, Liam, Lucas, Noah, Mason, Jayden, Ethan, Jacob, Jack.

— Social Security: Noah, Liam, Jacob, Mason, William, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, Jayden and Daniel.

There’s less difference for popular girls’ names. Sophia/Sofia, Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella and Mia rule both lists.

Is that because boys’ names tend to be less trendy? Or parents who choose more traditional names don’t bother to register on this website? In any case, we’re left with a subtly white-centric view of the nursery. Outside of the top names, the lists diverge sharply, especially for traditional names. And BabyCenter’s list is missing several Hispanic names in the top 100, like Angel, Jose, Luis and Juan.

You can also see this in names that moved up the most, according to the SSA list: more ethnic-sounding names such as Jayceon and Castiel for boys, and Daleyza and Freya for girls.

And not for nothing, the names of the Data Team members are past the bubble: All of our names have been losing popularity since at least 2000. Our trendiest member: Paul, who last broke the top 100 (at number 100) 14 years ago.

—Jodi Upton and Paul Overberg

It’s not so easy to count mass killings

Two years ago this month, a particularly horrific mass killing took place in a Newtown, Conn., school. We’re still struggling with how we cover these crimes:

– In September, an FBI report on so-called “active shooter” cases was widely misreported to show that “mass shootings” were increasing. A federal definition shared by several agencies defines “active shooter” as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” For its report, the FBI make two tweaks: To include cases where more than one person was shooting and to drop “confined” to include outdoor events. It’s worth pointing out that many of these cases don’t meet the FBI’s definition of a mass killing: four or more dead, not including killer(s).

The FBI just wanted tactical insight, so it also excluded whole categories of potentially qualifying events: “Specifically, shootings that resulted from gang or drug violence—pervasive, long-tracked, criminal acts that could also affect the public — were not included in this study. In addition, other gun-related shootings were not included when those incidents appeared generally not to have put others in peril (e.g., the accidental discharge of a firearm in a school building or a person who chose to publicly commit suicide in a parking lot).”


Wrote the authors: “The study does not encompass all mass killings or shootings in public places and therefore is limited in its scope.”

Resulting headlines at major news organizations: “Mass Shootings on the Rise, FBI Says”;  “Mass Shootings on the Rise, New FBI Study Shows”; “FBI: Mass shooting incidents occurring more frequently”; “FBI study: Deaths in mass shootings increasing.” (Search users beware: A recent check finds many still uncorrected stories on the Web.)

– We continue to update USA TODAY’s interactive graphic of mass killings, published a year ago. We use the FBI’s definition. This year we’ve counted 23, a bit below the average of 30 from 2006-13. (More on that in a minute.) Most weren’t big news outside the towns where they occurred. Typically, they involved a man targeting family members and acquaintances. Most involved guns but a handful did not. None involved semiautomatic rifles, although police haven’t revealed the weapon in a few cases. Almost half of the suspects were found dead or were killed by police. In all, 104 victims were killed, 12 more wounded. Continue reading

People power keeps shifting to Texas

Since the 2015 term of the House of Representatives just began today, it seems early to be thinking about its balance of power in 2023. The political industry never sleeps, however, especially over the big reset that comes after each census, when seats are redistributed among the states.

Hints come from Census Bureau estimates of 2014 state populations released recently. If done today with those estimates, reapportionment would shift a seat from Minnesota to Texas, according to Election Data Services, a Manassas, Va., consulting firm. That’s not much change compared with this time a decade ago, when five states already would have had to swap seats. Thank the slow economic recovery, which has delayed retirements, immigration, marriages, job relocations and the population shifts that they create.

With warnings about tentativeness, Election Data Services also projected House changes by 2020 if each state were to keep growing at its 2010-14 rate. Gainers of a single seat: Ariz., Calif., Colo., Fla., N.C., and possibly Oregon or Virginia. Texas would gain three seats. Losers of a single seat: Ala., Ill., Mich., Minn., Ohio, Pa., R.I., W.Va. and possibly N.Y.


Unlike much else in Washington, reapportionment can’t be lobbied, earmarked or filibustered. It’s in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2). It has only been kicked down the road once (in the 1920s). The current formula was set in a 1941 law that has been blessed by the Supreme Court.

Political impacts aside, reapportionment is a gauge of long-term shifts in where we the 2020 pattern seems to be emerging, even if details aren’t clear yet: Fewer shifted seats (9) than the last two reapportionments (12 each). Losses in the Northeast and Midwest, scattered gains elsewhere.

But the pattern is patchy. For example, New York and Massachusetts are growing faster than Sun Belt states like New Mexico, Alabama and Mississippi.

And who knows what the next five years will bring? A decade ago, population shifters like Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession and the fracking boom lay in the future. — Paul Overberg