Case Study of an L.A. Times Article

Part 2 of my book is entitled “A Distortion Theory of Bias.”  It begins with Chapter 6: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Omitted Statistics.”  The following are the first several paragraphs of the chapter:

In the previous chapter I applied an economic signaling model to the media.  In particular, I suggested that the news reports of a journalist are similar to the “messages” that the “sender” in such a model reports to the “receiver.”

For such an application to be appropriate, however, a particular principle must be true:  The journalist must be more informed about the particular news topic than her readers or viewers are.  Rarely, I suggest, will this principle not be true.  Journalists, at least usually, read lots of background material and interview many key observers to make sure that it is true.

Sometimes, however, it won’t be true.  That is, if you are lucky, there will be a rare moment or two in your life, where you read or watch a news story, and you know at least as much about the story as the journalist knows.  Usually, for this to happen, you must be one of the participants in the story, or, due to special circumstances, a very close observer.

“A Startling Statistic at UCLA”

Such an occasion happened to me on June 3, 2006.   “A Startling Statistic at UCLA” was the headline I read that morning on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

The article noted the low number of African Americans who would enroll as freshmen at UCLA that Autumn; it implied that the applications process was stacked against them; and at times it hinted—mainly through quotes of some far-left  students and other observers—that the problem was that UCLA faculty and administrators did not have sufficient desire for racial diversity.

At the time I was a member of the faculty oversight committee for admissions at UCLA, and accordingly, I knew the admissions process very well.

The author of the article, Rebecca Trounson, presented a very misleading picture of the process and its results, and I became outraged when I read the article.   While the rest of the world would think one thing about UCLA admissions, I knew that if they were fully informed, they would think something vastly different.

Yet, while the article was misleading and outrageous, it contained zero false statements.

[From Left Turn by Tim Groseclose, PhD. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by kind permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. All rights reserved.]

The article began as follows:

This fall 4,852 freshmen are expected to enroll at UCLA, but only 96, or  2%,  are African  American—the lowest figure in decades and a growing   concern at the Westwood campus.

For several years, students, professors and administrators at UCLA have watched with discouragement as the numbers of black students declined. But the new figures, released this week, have … prompted school leaders to declare the situation a crisis.

UCLA—which … is in a county that is 9.8% African American — now has a lower percentage of black freshmen than either crosstown rival USC or UC Berkeley, the school often considered its top competitor within the UC system.

The 96 figure—down by 20 students from last year—is the lowest for incoming African American freshmen since at least 1973. And of the [96 expected to enroll], 20 are recruited athletes, admissions officials said.

You can read the entire article here.

As I explain, the bias in the article came not from any false statements that the author wrote but from true statements that she omitted.  In the book, I list several such statements:

  • At UCLA almost half of all entering undergraduate students are transfers, not freshmen. During the time in question, early summer of 2006, 108 black transfer students were expected to enroll—22 more than the year before.
  • Thus, on net, when you count freshmen and transfers, compared to the year before, the total expected black undergraduate enrollment increased by 2 students.
  • Like many universities, UCLA has a separate admissions process for star athletes.  Because the NCAA had imposed stricter standards in 2006, UCLA coaches requested that the admissions office hold athletes to a higher academic standard, which resulted in fewer black athletes admitted to UCLA.  Specifically, in 2006 only 20 black athletes were expected to enroll, compared to 27 the prior year.  Thus, if the NCAA had not changed its rules, UCLA would likely have enrolled approximately seven more black students.  Accordingly, its net increase, compared to the year before, in total undergraduate black enrollment would have been not 2, but approximately 7 more, or 9.  (A University official told me that Trounson was given this general information.  However, the only part that she reported was that 20 of the 96 incoming black freshmen were athletes, not that this was a decrease from the year before, nor that this decrease was caused by new NCAA policies.)
  • Attitudes among UCLA faculty and staff are extremely pro- affirmative action.  The best evidence of this came in 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 209, which disallowed public universities to consider race in admissions.   After it was implemented, black admissions decreased by approximately 50%. Thus, the new law revealed that, when the law did not constrain UCLA’s ability to practice affirmative action, about half of all black students would not have been admitted had their skin color been different.
  • Other evidence of the politically correct attitudes was how UCLA changed its admissions rules in response to Proposition 209.  Shortly after the new law and the resulting decrease in black admissions, UCLA created a Life Challenge Index to help judge applicants. This gave students additional points if, e.g., their parents were poor, the quality of their high school was low, or if they faced a physical handicap.  While most of the factors in the Index were fairly uncontroversial, some were not.  For instance, a student gained a point if he or she was a single parent.  Also controversial was the motivation behind the Life Challenge Index.  As no one denies, it was designed to be a proxy for race.
  • Like many universities, UCLA rewards high school students who take difficult classes, especially Advanced Placement classes.  Students who take these classes receive a grade from their own high school, as well as a score from a national, standardized test.  The test helps to eliminate idiosyncratic factors, such as varying degrees of grade inflation in high schools.  UCLA, however, ignores the scores from the national test; it only considers the grade that the student’s high school reports.  The reason, as one of my senior colleagues on the committee told me, is that if UCLA did consider scores from the standardized test, fewer minority students would be admitted.
  • Many aspects of the UCLA admissions process violated the spirit of Proposition 209, if not its letter.  Although sociologist Darnell Hunt said the campus was doing less than it could, an argument could be made that the campus was doing more than it could, at least legally.
  • Students who apply to UCLA are aware of the politically-correct, pro-affirmative-action attitudes, and in order to exploit them, a large number of minority students reveal their race on the personal essays that they write in their applications.
  • Although they would not say it, the affirmative-action groups wanted a “holistic” system so that all readers could learn the race of applicants via the personal essays.  In contrast, the old system allowed only some of the applications readers to read the personal essays.
  • Although the article noted that African Americans comprised 9.8% of Los Angeles County, it did not note that that African Americans comprised only 4.6% of the applicants to UCLA.
  • Only 31% of the students expected to enroll at UCLA in 2006 were white, just short of a record low.  (Although Trounson did not mention this fact in the text of her article, a careful reader would learn this from a pie chart that accompanied the article.)

[From Left Turn by Tim Groseclose, PhD. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by kind permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. All rights reserved.]