A Harvard study claimed that thousands had died due to the hurricane in Puerto Rico. I took it on in the first fact check of the material.
Now Harvard has delivered. “Hurricane Maria killed more than 4,600 in Puerto Rico, not 64,“ USA Today blares. “A New Study Says Nearly 6,000 Died In Puerto Rico,“ BuzzFeed shouts. “Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria Death Toll Could Exceed 4,000,” the New York Times reports slightly more cautiously.
4,000, 4,600 or 6,000. Which is it?
“Hurricane Maria: 4,645 Died In Puerto Rico From Storm In 2017,” NPR claims. That’s more specific.
Except that the margin of error is “plus or minus 3,852.” That’s a sizable margin. Maybe 793 people or 8,498 people died
Instead they surveyed 3,299 random Puerto Rican households, used the survey results to generate a death rate of 14.3 per 1,000 between September 20, the date the hurricane hit, and December 31.
That’s over 100 days after the hurricane hit.
I don’t expect CNN to pay any attention to me.
But Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post, the only fact checker who has any credibility and actually does serious open-minded search, also ran the numbers.
In effect, the researchers took one number – 15 deaths identified from a survey of 3,299 households – and extrapolated that to come up with 4,645 deaths across the island. That number came with a very large caveat, clearly identified in the report, but few news media accounts bothered to explain the nuances….
Steven Kopits of Princeton Policy Advisers, an advisory firm, is a critic of the Harvard study. He notes that theavailable registry data, which still is incomplete, indicates 654 excess deaths above the previous year through December. (Note: More recent data released by Puerto Rico after this fact check was published suggests the number is closer to 1,400.) On the face of it, he said, the Harvard number makes little sense because that means 3,000 bodies would be missing – when only 45 were reported as missing as of December…
Another critic is Donald Berry, professor of biostatistics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “The results are statistically weak and nearly useless, at least insofar as number of deaths is concerned,” he said. “Another way of conveying the confidence interval 793 to 8498 is 4645+/-3852. The error is almost as big as the estimate.” He also faulted the researchers for using a different methodology — official deaths for all of Puerto Rico— as a comparison for 2016. “They should have used deaths in 2016 only the same 104 barrios they considered in 2017,” he said…..
That’s a similar point to the one I made.
And even Politifact introduced a cautionary note. But that can’t stop CNN.
At FEMA, Trump remained mum on new Puerto Rico death toll
President Donald Trump visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday, just over a week after a new Harvard study estimated more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico died in Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
But even as he was briefed on the upcoming hurricane season, the President remained mum on the new estimate, which dwarfs the government’s official 64-person death toll. Instead, the President praised FEMA and other US officials, telling them they should be “very proud” of their work to beat back last year’s devastating hurricane season.
Why does CNN treat the Harvard numbers as authoritative or meaningful? Let alone expect Trump to address them?
But this is typical of how the media manufactures its stories, reporting on a lack of comment as if it were a story, and using it as an opportunity to regurgitate its narrative.