Journalists seem to be lousy with numbers.
A Fox News article piqued my interest this week. Here was the headline:
At least 181 K-12 educators charged with child sex crimes in first half of 2022
Like many news articles, the numbers were reported but without any meaningful context. No information about how this compares to other years, the number of educators involved, or even how many K-12 educators there are in the United States.
What struck me about the article was the overlap with a recent report about the Southern Baptist Convention addressing how they have handled sex abuse accusations over the last 20 years. There has been a lot of breathless reporting about the fact that over 400 cases of abuse accusations had been documented by the “Guidepost Report“.
Russell Moore, always eager to ingratiate himself with the cool kids on the left, had this to say from his perch at Christianity Today:
Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.
At the time the Guidepost report was issued, several things didn’t quite add up for me. First, much of the reporting came across as an effort to replicate the sexual abuse controversies of the Catholic church but with Baptists being the target du jour. But comparing the Catholics to the Baptists is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The structure and lines of authority – hence accountability – in the Catholic church are nothing like the organization of the Baptist denomination.
But setting that issue aside for now, the other thing that didn’t add up was the number of cases. When “hundreds” of cases are reported it certainly sounds like a lot – indeed it IS a lot – but spread over roughly 20 years (the period covered by the report) it amounts to 20 accusations per year on average. Is that a lot? Well, characteristically missing from any of the reporting I read was information of any kind regarding the number of Southern Baptists.
So when the Fox News headline popped up this week I decided to do a little bit of digging. Here’s what I found:
- There are roughly 15,500,000 Southern Baptists in the United States. (I averaged the membership count per year over the time period covered by the Guidepost report.)
- There are roughly 3,900,000 K-12 educators in the United States.
- Public educators are on a pace to sexually abuse children at around 360 cases per year. Roughly equivalent to the number of accusations that cropped up among Baptists over 20 years.
- All things being equal, 1 in ~38,000 Baptists will be accused of sexual abuse while 1 out of 538 teachers will be charged with abuse. All of the teacher charges will involve children.
What this all means is that, given the data that is readily accessible, a child is at least 72X more likely to be abused by a teacher in a public school than in a Baptist church. And yet, all the heavy breathing in the press the past few months has been about Baptist abusers.
There are many missing pieces to this analysis. The Guidepost reported number of 400 is a count of accusations while the 181 count for public schools comprises actual criminal charges. One suspects that the number of actual accusations in public schools is larger than the number that eventually results in charges. If so, the numbers would look even worse for the teachers by comparison. But we also don’t know if the 181 count is an anomaly. I don’t have data in that regard. For my analysis I merely extrapolated from the 6 month number reported by Fox News to cover 20 years. All of this analysis is based only on information that was easy to come by using search engines.
Of course, this in no way is intended to diminish the seriousness of sexual abuse or to suggest that no Baptist has ever done anything wrong. For the record, I’m not a Baptist and don’t have “a dog in that hunt” as they say. I’m not incentivized to try to preserve the reputation of the Southern Baptist Convention. My interest here is merely related to observing the way in which our attention is focused by the press, the way assumptions are formed, and how numbers are used to manipulate.
By comparison with the Baptist church, there seems to be a veritable plague of sexual abuse in our public schools. Yet, where the subject of sexual abuse within organizations is concerned, the press has been talking primarily about the Baptists.
Why is that?