More on the New York Times’ struggle with data!


Data are for squares, one scribe says: Yesterday, we noted two reports from Tuesday’s New York Times in which the mighty newspaper seemed to be struggling with data. For edification, click here.

We said there were other problems with data in the New York Times that day. Today, let’s look at Michael Shear’s news report about the declining homicide rate in Minneapolis.

Obama had been to the Land of Lakes to talk about guns, not butter. As he started his report, Shear explained why:
SHEAR (2/5/13): Obama Presses for Gun Measures, Offering Up Minneapolis as a Model

President Obama traveled to the nation’s heartland on Monday to press his case for tougher national gun laws, even as he appeared to acknowledge that expanded background checks on gun sales were far more likely to pass Congress than a ban on military-style assault weapons.

In a city once called “Murderapolis” for its homicide rate in the 1990s, the president cited successful gun-violence prevention efforts here as evidence that new national laws are needed to reduce the number of shootings across the country.
In the 90s, the homicide rate was so bad that the city was called Murderapolis! But according to Shear and/or Obama, gun-violence prevention efforts had proven successful.

To all appearances, these successful efforts have “reduced the number of shootings” in Minneapolis. We assumed we’d learn what those efforts were. We also assumed that we would see some numbers defining the size of the drop in that homicide rate.

No such luck! Shear’s report ran 1052 words; it contained twenty paragraphs. But at no time did we ever see any data about Minneapolis homicide rates!

It seems that Mayor Rybak had been boasting about his own efforts. But this was all we ever learned about the city’s actual rates:
SHEAR: In the 1990s, Minneapolis experienced an explosion of drug- and gang-related violence, which led to a series of local measures aimed at reducing gun violence that has brought down the city’s murder rate.

The city has developed programs directed at rehabilitating young people who have committed violent crimes, and its leaders are pushing for faster and more comprehensive state background checks for people buying guns.

Janeé Harteau, the Minneapolis police chief, noted that violent crime persists, mentioning two children who were recently killed by stray bullets in the city. Mr. Obama cited the city’s overall success in reducing crime as proof that new laws could make a difference even if they could not eliminate the threat of all shootings.

“When it comes to protecting our children from gun violence, you’ve shown that progress is possible,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t have to agree on everything to agree that it’s time to do something. That’s my main message here today.”

Aides said that Mr. Obama had met privately with law enforcement officials, as well as state and local political officials and community leaders responsible for those efforts Monday before his remarks.

Among the officials Mr. Obama met were Gov. Mark Dayton, Mr. Rybak, Ms. Harteau and Richard Stanek, the sheriff of Hennepin County. Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, also attended the meeting.
In the first paragraph we have posted, Shear directly asserts that the “local measures aimed at reducing gun violence” have in fact “brought down the city’s murder rate.” Later, Obama says the same thing.

But we’re never told what the murder rate was in the 1990s, or where it stands today. Nor are we ever told why Shear feels sure that it really was those “local measures” which brought the murder rate down. Haven’t murder rates been dropping all over the nation? How can Shear be sure that they dropped in “Murderapolis” because of those local efforts?

In related journalistic action, Kevin Drum has offered another post about the drop in violent crime in New York City—and in cities in Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, and Finland, among other places. It’s Drum’s (well-researched) belief that lead abatement has helped bring such crime rates down.

Why is Shear telling us something different? We're not saying those efforts didn't help. But how does Shear know that they did?

While we’re at it:

If you’re going to do a lengthy report about the drop in some city’s homicide rate, shouldn’t some numbers show up in your piece? You know—some actual data?


  1. If you’re going to do a lengthy report about the drop in some city’s homicide rate, shouldn’t some numbers show up in your piece?


  2. I once read a work by a statistician. I forget who.

    He said trends move in cycles like sine waves, and these cycles could be measured and predicted.

    All a smart politician had to do was look at the cycles, figure out the trend, then promise do bring the numbers up (or down) if he were elected and his policies were followed.

    When the cycles moved as predicted, he could proudly announce that his policies brought about the desired result.

    Of course, a politician can use the same methods to "view with alarm" the failed policies of his opponents.

    There is no need to prove causality. The numbers will speak for themselves.

  3. The Times tells us:

    Obama Presses for Gun Measures, Offering Up Minneapolis as a Model

    ...Mr. Obama renewed his call for Congress to pass a series of measures, including a ban on the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines and an expansion of the criminal background check system that currently covers only about 60 percent of gun sales....Mr. Obama cited the city’s overall success in reducing crime as proof that new laws could make a difference.

    It would be nice if the Times also told us whether the three measures proposed by Mr. Obama were a part of Minneapolis's allegedly successful program to reduce gun murders. If not, then the President was being deceptive. He was using the (alleged) success of one set of measures as evidence for the effectiveness of a different set of measures. But, the Times would never tell their readers about weaknesses in the President's pitch.

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