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The Washington Post on Sunday helped to prolong the AIDS epidemic’s long history with hysteria. One of the first pieces of data to hit the reader was an above-the-fold table on the District’s AIDS crisis. Here’s what it said:

Leading the Nation
The District has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country.

Rate of new cases in 2004, per 100,000 people
1. District 179.2
2. New York 39.7
3. Florida 33.5
4. Maryland 26.1
5. Louisiana 22.4
6. New Jersey 21.2
7. Delaware 18.9
21. Virginia 10.7

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

So, prepare for the apocalypse, right?

No. The chart that greeted readers on Sunday morning is totally meaningless, because it compares a city’s social ills with those of entire states. As high-schoolers learn in civics class, cities are where problems like AIDS and poverty and other social troubles tend to cluster. Yes, the District does have an AIDS problem that’s 4.5 times greater than that of the state of New York.

But how does it compare with another city? Well, back in 2003, the Post itself reported that Baltimore, for example, had recorded a rate of 117 cases per 100,000 people. At that time, the District’s rate was 119 per 100,000 people. Interpretation: The city’s AIDS crisis is severe, but not nearly as severe as the Post would have you believe. Says Guy Weston, a former top D.C. AIDS official: “Factors related to urbanicity, such as population density and higher rates of poverty contribute to higher rates of communicable diseases in cities as compared to states. Regarding HIV/AIDS in particular, the impact of HIV/AIDS on ‘gay’ men, injecting drug users and their sexual partners early in the epidemic means the disease had an early foothold in urban areas with large enclaves of these populations. This is a second reason why DC should not be compared to states.”

After decade upon decade of covering the District, and earning great prizes for its coverage of social issues in D.C., the Post should know far better than to pull this JV move. Part of the problem, City Desk surmises, is that the piece came from the paper’s Style section, which lacks Metro’s experience in handling the idiosyncrasies of D.C.’s orphaned political status.

Jose Antonio Vargas, the story’s author, defends the reporting this way: “We made it clear in the story—and in the accompanying graphic—that it’s the CDC that compares D.C. to other states, not other cities.”