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Commentary: A case study in how the media use real facts to tell a lie

An Associated Press story — which implies that President Donald Trump's administration is improperly discharging immigrant recruits — is a magnificent case study in how lazy, sloppy reporting can tell a misleading story, even if the actual facts presented in the story are correct. (2017 file photo/Jewel Samad/AFP photo)

A story by The Associated Press has been making the rounds on social media over the last 24 hours, and it strongly implies that President Donald Trump's administration is improperly discharging immigrant recruits from a United States armed forces program that was created to give immigrants a potential path to citizenship.

"US Army quietly discharging immigrant recruits," the AP headline whispers conspiratorially. Surely, the message is clear: Here we have proof that the Trump administration hates all immigrants, not just illegal immigrants.

The story concerns a program instituted during the George W. Bush administration to provide "expedited naturalization" for legal immigrants who enlist in the military and receive an honorable discharge. According to the AP's figures, some 110,000 recruits have successfully completed the program and received naturalization in the 16-plus years that the program has been in existence — or about 6,500 per year.

The AP then goes on to quote "immigration attorneys" who say "they know of more than 40 who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable" in some unspecified time frame. The AP interviewed and quoted a handful of these immigrants at extensive length in their story. They frankly admitted, "the AP was unable to quantify how many men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program have been booted from the Army[.]"

Let us grant, for the sake of simplicity, that the AP accurately reported what these immigration lawyers told them, and also accurately quoted all the subjects they interviewed for their story; in other words, assume that the facts set forth are actually true.

However, as anyone knows, one of the most effective ways to mislead someone is to only tell part of the truth, or to selectively omit relevant context. This AP story is a magnificent case study in how lazy, sloppy reporting can (perhaps intentionally) tell a misleading story, even if the actual facts presented in the story are correct.

As you dig down into the story, you learn that the applicants for the program in question have to have legal status in the United States and pass a standard background check. One thing that happens when you require people to pass a background check is that sometimes they fail.  Indeed, it seems that failure to complete the background check (or simply just waiting a long time for the background check to be completed) is the reason nearly all of the subjects they interviewed were discharged.

What's missing from the story is any indication at all that the rate of failed background checks and/or discharges has gone up under the Trump administration. The AP indicates that 110,000 people have successfully completed the program since its inception, but they do not indicate how many people were discharged from the program before completion over the life of the program, which makes it impossible to tell whether the rate of those discharges has gone up, down, or stayed the same.

Of course, that doesn't matter, because the AP can't even tell you the total number of people who have been discharged "recently," or apparently in any concrete time frame.

At the risk of belaboring a blindingly obvious point, it's irresponsible to imply that the rate of discharges is increasing, if you don't know either the current rate of discharges or the historical rate of discharges.

However, even assuming that the 40 people identified by immigration lawyers were discharged during the last year, that would mean that less than 1 percent have been discharged due to background check issues, which certainly doesn't seem out of bounds whatsoever.

Moreover, of the 40 people mentioned by AP, the AP provides no breakdown of how many of these enlistees have been "discharged" and how many of them are merely in the "status has become questionable" category. This is extremely relevant because it becomes clear later in the story that the AP counted people who have simply been waiting for a long time for their background check to be completed in their "status has become questionable" count.

In other words, the AP has no idea how many total people have actually been discharged, they have no idea if this number is higher than the usual number, nor do they have any idea what the usual number even is. If they do know the information, they simply chose not to include it in their report.

Without this information, they have no way of knowing whether the phenomenon they are reporting on is new, or represents any change in policy or procedure at all. Presumably, some portion of enlistees in this program always fail background checks, or are rejected for one reason or another.

Nor does the AP present any evidence at all that these particular discharges were improper in any way, other than quoting the discharged enlistees who feel that their discharges were unfair. Presumably, some enlistees who fail their background checks are always disappointed and feel that their discharges were not justified (otherwise they would not have applied in the first place).

Without any evidence that the number of discharges is higher (or lower) than normal, or that there was anything improper about the consideration process, how can the Associated Press uncritically print these anecdotal quotes as proof that the Army is "quietly discharging immigrant recruits"?

In short, nothing in the AP's story proves or even suggests the existence of an actual, real policy change in the military that is causing it to "quietly discharg[e] immigrant recruits" in some new or nefarious way. But that doesn't stop them from implying it anyway.

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