Media badly misplaying Foxconn suicides

16:58, May 21, 2010      

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Patrick Mattimore

One newspaper has called the recent suicides at the electronics company Foxconn an epidemic. Another newspaper reports that Foxconn is experiencing a “spate of suicides.” Unfortunately, this is an instance of media hysteria and disregard for statistical facts which may have real world negative consequences.

Taiwanese-owned Foxconn has had seven suicides this year. That sounds like a lot, but the firm has an estimated 800,000 workers, more than 300,000 of them at a single plant in Shenzhen.

Although exact figures are hard to come by, even the most conservative estimate for China's suicide rate is 14 per 100,000 per year (World Health Organization). In other words, Foxconn’s suicide epidemic is actually lower than China’s national average of suicides.

French media similarly hysterically misreported suicides last year at France Telecom, the French telecommunications giant that employs 102,000 people in France. There were widely disseminated reports about those suicides and, as in the instant case, the suicides were not particularly out-of-line with national averages.

If the only upshot of these stories was heightened attention to workplace issues, such as improving workers' conditions, then the stories would not be troubling. The problem is that people are fired and the stories become political ammunition for various groups. In France, for example, last year's suicides at France Telecom were a political bonanza for groups like the increasingly irrelevant Socialist Party there.

Another problem is that responsible businesses like Foxconn often take benevolent, but misguided actions to try and "solve" their problem. Foxconn has reportedly established rooms with punching bags where frustrated employees can go to take out their aggression. Besides the costs and manpower to create the solution and maintain it, the punching bag room may actually worsen relations at the company.

The idea that we dissipate aggression by getting it out on a substitute for the real target of our anger (a psychological concept known as catharsis) has been tested and, as it turns out, doesn't work. In a variety of controlled trials, individuals' anger increases after they have acted out their substitute aggressions.

In other words, hitting a punching bag with your boss’ face on it will make you want to hit her even more.

Another troubling facet of misleading the public with the Foxconn suicide story is that there is a very real desire to scapegoat Foxconn. That tendency is understandable because it is human nature to want to shift the blame for the act of suicide to someone other than the perpetrator. However, that shift should not be mistaken for reasonably reading the situation.

Stories now proliferate to explain the “suicide problem,” accusing Foxconn of insensitivity, the same charge, incidentally, that was leveled last year at France Telecom. Disgruntled former employees are sought out to confirm the company’s poisonous culture and other explanations as to the deaths of the young individuals (i.e. broken romantic relationships) are either disregarded or made to sound like excuses if proffered by the company’s executives.

The larger problem stems from the fact that most journalists have not been taught to critically examine statistics. They follow the herd which often means that they report numbers without providing readers a context for making sense of those numbers. In his 2008 book, "Real Education," Charles Murray, writes: "Widespread statistical illiteracy... is cause for immediate concern because none of us, no matter how thorough our training, has the time to assess the data independently on every topic. We all have to rely on the quality of information we get from the media-and, as of today, that quality is terrible."

Reporters often write stories with statistics that are incomplete, misleading, or just plain wrong. Hopefully, the public will wake up to the fact that there is nothing wrong at Foxconn and demand that newspapers act more responsibly and begin supplying some context when they decide to instigate their next corporate suicide watch.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and a former psychology teacher. patrickmattimore1@yahoo.com

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

(Editor:张心意)

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