Yahoo News leads with Chicago murders and then says it is not the murder capital

If the point of a news story/video is to say something is not true, would you lead with the data from the not true side?

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Here is the way this seems to work: grab your attention with a publicly available statistic that stands out. Oh my, how could there be so many murders in one city?? But, several sentences later, tell the reader/viewer that multiple other cities have a higher murder rate. And include in the last sentence that the murder number in Chicago has been down in recent years. So, wait: Chicago really isn’t the murder capital?

I’m trying to figure out how this adds to the public discourse. Here are a few possibilities:

  1. It is simply about clicks. Get people’s attention with a statistic and a video, throw in some data. Easy to produce, not much content.
  2. The goal is to highlight the still-high number of murders in Chicago.
  3. The goal is to point out that other cities actually experience more murders per capita.
  4. To give those who teach statistics an example of how data can be twisted and/or used without telling much of a story.

 

Connecting big drops in homicide rates and race and ethnicity

A new sociological study finds that homicide rates across different racial and ethnic groups have fallen:

The study revealed that three of the most significant social trends over the past 20 years — mass incarceration, rapid immigration and growing wealth inequality — all contributed to the reduction in the gaps between the white homicide victimization rate and those for blacks and Hispanics.

As a result, the black-white homicide victimization rate gap decreased by 40 percent, the Hispanic-white gap dropped by 55 percent and the black-Hispanic gap shrunk by 35 percent, according to the study to be published Thursday in the April issue of the American Sociological Review…

In fact, the study found that an influx of immigrants actually decreases homicides. “People who decide to come here are not people with strong tendencies toward violent crime,” Light said. “They are coming here for educational opportunities, employment opportunities and opportunities to help their families.”…

The study also showed that the increasing racial/ethnic disparities in incarceration rates were associated with significant reductions in black-white and black-Hispanic homicide victimization rate gaps. However, the authors were quick to caution against drawing the conclusion that even more incarceration would produce even more benefits because the findings have to be viewed in a larger context.

There are several matters of public perception that this study seems to address. Many are not aware of these declines and instead think crime has risen (see earlier posts here and here). Or, how about the data on immigration on crime where higher rates of immigration lead to lower homicide rates? Or, the roughly 35-40 percent decrease in the homicide rates for whites, blacks, and Latinos?

Thinking more broadly, what would it actually take for the American public to change their perceptions about crime? Could this sociology study help convince average Americans that violent crime rates have significantly dropped in recent decades? Would the media have to stop highlighting violent crime? Would the entertainment industry (movies, TV, video games, books, etc.) have to become less violent? Thinking about this particular study, perhaps positive changes to race relations would help…

To see recent spike in murders in big cities, you have to see the decline before that

New data suggests murders are up in some major American cities. Yet, to see this spike, you have to acknowledge the steady decline in previous years:

Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., among others, have all seen significant increases in their murder rates through the first half of 2015.

Homicides in St. Louis, for example, are up almost 60% from last year while robberies are up 40%. In Washington, D.C., 73 people have been killed so far this year, up from 62 last year, an 18% jump. In Milwaukee, murders have doubled since last year, while in nearby Chicago homicides have jumped almost 20%…

Criminologists warn that the recent spikes could merely be an anomaly, a sort of reversion to the mean after years of declining crime rates. But there could be something else going on, what some officials have called a “Ferguson effect,” in which criminals who are angry over police-involved shootings like that of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in August, have felt emboldened to commit increased acts of violence.

It is hard to have it both ways by complaining about high crime rates before this year and then now complaining about a spike. Crime rates were down for nearly two decades in most major cities prior to this year. Yet, this wasn’t the perception. Thus, we might see this spike as “Crime rates were high and now they are even higher!” or it could be “Crime rates declined for a long period and now this is a spike.” These are two different stories.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This story is unclear about whether this is true across the board in major American cities or just in the places cited here.

2. It is hard to know what this spike is about as it is happening. What will happen in a few months or in the next few years?

Actual crimes vs. perceptions of crime in Birmingham, AL

Like many American cities, crime is down in Birmingham, Alabama yet this is not the perception:

With ten people killed in Birmingham since the start of Labor Day weekend, a city that prides itself on revitalization and a declining murder rate has had some old ghosts creep out of the closet.

None of the killings occurred in areas of the city’s heralded new entertainment districts. But the stabbing of an elderly woman in an apparent Avondale break-in, and the deaths of two bikers in a shootout at a club in an area north of Avondale were close enough to raise questions, again, about whether the city is safe.

“Perception is reality,” said John Sloan, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Birmingham boasts that crime is down, and that murders have fallen sharply from previous highs. Still, said Sloan, “People don’t believe it.”

“The problem is how do you change that image?” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, one of two former UAB sociology professors who co-authored “Unhealthy Cities: Poverty, Race and Place in America. “That’s an uphill battle.”…

Said Fitzpatrick: “Between 70 and 80 percent of crime is between people who know each other. It’s not a lot of random crime. It’s not the kind of crime people who want to go downtown to the baseball game need to be worried about.”

A familiar story: crime has dropped substantially yet some high-profile cases largely involving limited social networks in certain neighborhoods fuel lingering perceptions from suburbanites and others about the dangers of the big city.

The article suggests cities need to continually fight these perceptions and fear is tough to overcome. I can think of one way to help combat this: work with the local media to change their reporting. While these organizations need ratings and sales, historically the media has been part of growth machines that are important parts of urban growth. If Birmingham grows, attracting people and businesses, the media is likely to benefit as well from selling more advertisements and copies. So why not work with them to change their leads to also emphasize positive stories? Everyone can win here. (I realize this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. Yet, I haven’t heard any recent cases of the media working with local governments on this issue. While the media often sees itself as a watchdog or the protector of the public, it historically has had a role in supporting local initiatives.)

Irresponsible to take FBI crime statistics and name a “murder capital”

News stories like this one seem to suggest that the FBI just designated Chicago the murder capital of the United States.

Move over New York, the Second City is now the murder capital of America.

According to new crime statistics released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chicago had more homicides in 2012 than any other city in the country. There were 500 murders in Chicago last year, the FBI said, surpassing New York City, which had 419.

In 2011, there were 515 homicides in the Big Apple, compared with the 431 in Chicago.

But as the Washington Post noted, residents of Chicago and New York were much less likely to be victims of a homicide than some Michigan residents. In Flint, for example, there were 63 killings — a staggering number when you consider Flint’s population is 101,632 — “meaning 1 in every 1,613 city residents were homicide victims.” In Detroit, where 386 killings occurred in 2012, 1 in 1,832 were homicide victims.

Check out the FBI press release announcing the 2012 figures: there is no mention of a “murder capital.” In fact, the press release seems to caution against the sort of sensationalistic interpretations that are implied by “murder capital”:

Each year when Crime in the United States is published, some entities use the figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction. The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population coverage or student enrollment.

To their credit, a number of these news stories include figures like those in the quoted section above: the murder rate is probably more important than the actual number of murders since populations can vary quite a bit. But, that still doesn’t stop media sources from leading with the “murder capital” idea.

My conclusion: this is an example of an irresponsible approach to crime statistics. Even if murders were down everywhere, the media could still designate a “murder capital” referring to whatever city had the most murders.

TMQ takes apart “police procedurals” (otherwise known as crime shows)

After some analysis of the Super Bowl, Tuesday Morning Quarterback gets down to his real business of dissecting “police procedurals.” Here are some points I appreciated:

Television is swamped in police dramas. During a recent week, 14 of the 45 Big Three prime-time hours were crime shows. Except they no longer are called that — the genre is now “procedurals.” In theory this means the shows depict police procedure. In practice, being a procedural means a formula. Here it is…[a 15 point formula follows]

On TV, cops exist in constant jeopardy of life and limb. This, though “most police officers retire at the end of a 20- or 25-year career without ever having fired a weapon other than at the practice range.” Despite the bullets ricocheting around them, TV detectives are NEVER frightened. Most are spoiling to charge headlong into obvious danger…

But isn’t the violence realism? In the world of TV, murder and mayhem are an epidemic. Actually crime is in generation-long cycle of decline. Today, strollers are safer in Central Park after dark than in the 1950s. Last year, Central Park averaged slightly more than one robbery a month, versus two robberies a day a generation ago. Yet on procedurals, crime is getting worse. This plays to preconceived notions about the nation falling apart, especially such notions held by senior citizens, who watch a lot of television.And on procedurals, the police always catch the bad guy. Actually a significant number of homicides are never solved, while most burglaries never even lead to an arrest. Of course, procedurals are just Hollywood nonsense. But procedurals get it wrong both ways: making crime seem more common than it is, but also making crime seem never to pay.

Lots of good material here.

One might say that this doesn’t matter, people clearly know what is entertainment on television and they don’t mistake police shows for what actually happens. But I would argue that this is not the case: most people’s knowledge about police work and crime likely comes from the mass media, particularly depictions on television and in movies. Crime rates are going down yet one wouldn’t know it from its rising popularity on TV. Serial killers are uncommon except on television. Children are rarely abducted except on television. These shows and movies aim to trigger emotional reactions (as TMQ notes, the grisliness of the crimes is often shocking) and fearful responses.

A silly and yet illustrative example from my own life: where I hear news that someone was killed during the day, I have a hard time reconciling this with media images I’ve seen for years that murders tend to take place in stormy situations. While the storms in shows and movies might be more metaphorical than anything else, I have this idea in my head that this is when killing happens. I would guess there is not much data to back this up but this is an idea that has stuck with me even though it was never clearly expressed to me. Violent crime = bad weather.

If we expect citizens to be able to discuss and vote intelligently about important topics like crime and punishment (and have no doubt, we like to punish people), how can this happen if television is painting a heavily slanted story? I wouldn’t suggest that television needs to be completely realistic but at the same time, common images have a cultural power that is difficult to counteract.

Discussing acceptable risk and gun deaths

One of the larger issues brought to light by the Arizona shootings is whether Americans want to risk the possibility of such an event occurring in the future. One commentator considers the trade-offs that might exist in limiting the risk of gun violence:

RealClearPolitics analyzed the most recent United Nation’s data to better understand American violence. The assault rate in Scotland, England, Australia and Germany is more than twice the US-assault rate, at times far more. Yet the US-murder rate is at least four times the rate of these developed nations. America’s murder rate ranks 53 among 153 nations. No other developed nation ranks within the top half. The comparison between assault and murder rates is rough; an assault is not always reported or discovered. Both rates are, however, based on criminal justice sources from 2003 to 2008. And the comparison, for all its imperfections, captures an important fact: Americans are not exceptional for their violence but exceptional for their extreme violence–murder.

American violence has known far worse days. In 2008, the national homicide rate reached its lowest level since 1965. But there are still about 12,000 gun related murders annually. Guns are involved in two-thirds of American homicides. The US firearm-murder rate ranks among third-world countries. It’s about ten times the rate of Western European nations like Germany…

There is an unspoken willingness to tolerate our share of murders. American hyper-capitalism makes a similar tradeoff. We subscribe to social Darwinism to a degree unseen in Western Europe. It’s one reason our economy is the fittest. But it also explains why the wealthiest nation in the world has a weaker social safety net than other developed countries. The conservative equation of freedom: lower taxes and fewer regulations on guns, equals more freedom. Liberals adhere to their own zealous formulation of American freedom. The left has won more civil rights for the mentally ill, but those rights will sometimes risk the public’s welfare.

This is an interesting take on the situation. Whose rights should be protected? Are we willing to risk similar events occurring?

Considering the relative risks might also be helpful. Gun deaths, particularly like those lives taken in Arizona, seem particularly tragic and sudden. In comparison, over 33,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2009. Which is the bigger priority: limiting gun deaths or motor vehicle accidents. These sorts of questions are quite difficult to answer and often don’t seem to be part of national conversations.

[Another note: can we really say that “our economy is the fittest”? One index recently named Hong Kong the world’s “freest economy.”]

[A final question: is it strange that this particular violence occurrence is getting so much attention when there are 12,000 gun deaths a year in the United States? I’m reminded of the talk in Chicago in recent years about whether the deaths in poorer neighborhoods were receiving the attention they should from police and politicians.]