Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bankruptcies Up 8%. Or 13%. Or 40%. Depends On Which Story You Read.

Today's front page offers a story -- "Bankruptcies By Consumers Climb Sharply" -- that feels so true, you feel churlish for questioning it.

But even a brief look at recent coverage of personal bankruptcies raises questions about the Times's reporting of the trend.

Let's begin with the factual basis of the Times story -- the statistic, in the third paragraph, that personal bankruptcy filings rose by 8% in October , and passed 100,000 for the first time.

Is that news? Or is it accurate? That's not clear.

Almost two weeks ago, on November 4, Reuters reported that personal bankruptcies rose 20% in October from the previous month. Its source was the American Bankruptcy Institute, an organization widely quoted and referenced by the news media. (The Times's Jonathan D. Glater cited its statistics about corporate bankruptcies in a November 12 piece.)

The Reuters story was picked up by several American newspapers and included these figures, including year-to-year comparisons not included in the Times account:

U.S. consumers filed some 106,266 bankruptcies in October, up 40 percent from a year ago and up 20 percent from September. So far this year, consumers have filed more than 880,000 bankruptcy petitions, eclipsing 822,000, the total for all of last year, the ABI said.

The Times attributes its 8% figure to Automated Access to Court Electronic Records, which its described as a "bankruptcy data and management company." It reports 108,595 personal bankruptcies in October.

But even if the Times is right, it's late. On November 3, Bloomberg news reported the same AACER bankruptcy data on its wire. Curiously, Bloomberg -- while using the same numbers -- put the increase from the previous month at 13%, not 8%. Which is it? Hard to tell, since neither story gives the prior month's statistic.

It's worth noting, that the Bloomberg story quoted Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy expert at Harvard Law School, on the bankruptcy rise, as does today's Times article. That's no shock; Warren has been warning about consumer bankruptcies for years, having been quoted in (or written) more than 100 previous Times articles.

Times reporters Tara Siegel Bernard and Jenny Anderson, perhaps to justify a page-one byline, attempt to go beyond the statistics to examine the phenomenon, by interviewing individuals as well as experts. Their story ends up quoting four bankruptcy lawyers and two college professors, and only two bankruptcy victims.

And on top of that, their reporting doesn't properly flesh out their thesis.

Their story focuses on the steep October rise, but their two examples -- Tony and Carrie Forsyth of Florida, and Lisa Marquis (who lives in an Indiana town the reporters don't disclose, with a husband who the reporters don't name) -- both filed for bankruptcy protection before the current economic crisis even unfolded.

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