We offer our standard excuse: Have homicide rates gone up this year in the nation’s big cities?
We don’t know, and we offer our favorite excuse. We read the New York Times!
If you read yesterday’s Times, you might have thought the paper said that urban homicide rates actually have gone up.
If you thought the Times said that, you were pretty much wrong. Here’s why:
Monica Davey’s news report was the featured report on the paper’s front page. Under a Milwaukee dateline, this is the way it started:
DAVEY (9/1/15): Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year—after 86 homicides in all of 2014.Please note what Davey wrote:
More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.
She didn’t write that some cities across the nation “are seeing a startling rise in murders.” She didn’t write that many cities “are seeing a startling rise.”
She wrote that “cities across the nation”—no qualification—“are seeing a startling rise in murders.” From that, you may have thought that Davey can show that the homicide rate has gone way up in American cities in general.
In fact, Davey makes no such demonstration in her front-page report. Many readers will think she established that fact. But she plainly didn’t.
Might we note a second point? By her second paragraph, Davey seems to be playing her readers.
You may have thought she said, in that paragraph, that “more than thirty other cities,” aside from Milwaukee, have also reported increases in murders. But as you can very plainly see, she actually didn’t say that.
She actually said that more than 30 other cities “have also reported increases in violence.” And yes, we’ll guess that she was choosing her words carefully there. Later on in her report, you’ll note that she says this:
DAVEY: Urban bloodshed—as well as the overall violent crime rate—remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and criminologists say it is too early to draw broad conclusions from the recent numbers. In some cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, homicides remain at a relatively steady rate this year.She doesn’t say that 35 cities are reporting increases in murders. In a way big reporters once called “Clintonesque,” she clearly says something different.
Yet with at least 35 of the nation’s cities reporting increases in murders, violent crimes or both, according to a recent survey, the spikes are raising alarm among urban police chiefs.
Has the homicide rate in our big cities gone up this year as a general matter? It’s certainly possible, but Davey never tries to establish that claim. While we’re at it, let’s note how limited her claims really are.
Davey includes a graphic showing ten cities where homicide rates have risen. That said, there are a lot of cities in the U.S., and Davey goes fairly far down the list to offer those ten examples.
How far down the list does she go? According to the leading authority, Milwaukee—her prime example of that “startling rise in murders”—is the nation’s 31st largest city. She also includes Kansas City, the 37th largest city; New Orleans, the 50th largest; and St. Louis, which is 60th on the list.
Some of our biggest cities are on her list too, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia (numbers 1, 3 and 5). But Philly’s increase is just four percent, and New York City’s is only nine. What’s happening in all the other cities, the ones Davey doesn’t mention?
Has the homicide rate in our big cities gone up this year as a general matter. Note how hard Davey seems to have worked to avoid addressing that question:
At the bottom of her graphic, the Times describes the source for its data: “City police departments.” Couldn’t the Times have checked with the departments of the 30 or 40 largest cities to create an overall statistic for our biggest cities?
The thought doesn’t seem to have entered Davey’s head. At no point does she explain why she hasn’t presented some such compilation. To all appearances, we’re left with some clever phrasing and possibly with some cherry-picked cities, which in some cases are quite far down the list of biggest burbs.
This news report has the form of a classic Times “trend story.” It creates a clear impression, but it lacks the kind of data which can justify the impression. And then, to experience real despair, consider what happens when such reports fall into the hands of our pundits.
Yesterday, on Morning Joe, the gang paused its trashing of Clinton long enough to cluck about the Times report. To watch them try to conduct a discussion, you can just click here.
Needless to say, no one noticed the shaky nature of the Times’ statistical claims. Things got worse when Scarborough asked the scribes to explain the alleged one-year increase in murders.
Bless their hearts! First Mike Barnicle, then Jonathan Capehart, took a try at punditsplaining the alleged one-year jump. Each pundit attributed the jump to social factors which have been around for roughly a million years.
At first, Joe tried to challenge this logical problem. Soon, though, he gave up, and Mika stepped in to save the day. She made the suggestion all good pundits love:
“All right, let’s get to politics.”
Have homicide rates in our big cities gone up this year as a general matter? We can’t say that we actually know.
We offer our standard excuse.