Congratulations, you are living in the golden age of media manipulation and I bet you are not even appreciating the master class. Chicago homicides spiked by 47.1 percent over April 2013, shootings up 65 percent, but if you opened up the news today you will likely see none of that. Instead the city awakened to yet another "not so bad" article about how crime is really down.
I have a running bet with several of my friends what the crisis management angle will be next. So far the best ones have been:
- "We don't have a crime problem we have a perception issue."
- Blaming it on lax state and federal gun laws.
- Announcing new task force or police strategy.
- Announcing more police will be patrolling.
- Having the Police Superintendent do a ride along for press.
But the odds on favorite answer has always been selectively release crime statistics based on an ever changing metric. I should have gone with that (I was betting on -- "we need more time for city and federal efforts to work").
The way it usually works is you select crime stats, and compare them to either year-to-date or monthly based on previous year depending on which percentage gets you better story. When that doesn't give you a number you want -- you shift to month over previous month. When things are really bad you start comparing the (unadjusted for the decrease in population) crime stats to previous years. And when stats can't be massaged to fit your narrative you fall back on the "X days" since last (insert crime).
The last one is the preferred talking point of local Alderman, but in in January 2012, Chicago used it to promote the "achievement" that no one was shot in a 24 hour time span. A rather dubious statistic, but one that was still run on every major newspaper and TV channel as some sign of progress. (To be clear someone was shot 364 days but we reported the 1 where no one was shot.)
Coming off a 47.1 percent spike in homicides (April 2014 over April 2013), and 65 percent spike in shootings (in what was a deadly April) the crisis management team was surely going to blame someone else. So, it came as a surprise for even me, to read the news today and see the headline was that only two more people were shot and that shootings were down.
Sure they wrapped in January and February statistics which were abnormally low due to extreme cold. (I never expected April over April -- that comparison only gets made when numbers are good). However, the part that really stood out was the sudden shift from percentage to raw numbers. In fact the news release stats were all percentages EXCEPT the homicide number. Why shift to numbers? Saying only two more people were killed is a better stat than having the news headline report an increased percentage. Tying reduced shooting numbers (even though April spiked up with the weather) also helped temper the negative press.
I don't blame the department, in fact in a lot of ways I am thoroughly impressed at their creativity. I just can't get past the reality that no one in the news room questioned the slant of the narrative. It is becoming abundantly clear that decreased news budgets coupled with a better communications staff can pretty much get the city the coverage they want.
Take the Chicago Sun-Times for example, they have one of the best data driven reporting teams in the city and even host an entire section dedicated to mapping homicides, yet just four days ago they ran an article that included stats from the Superintendent stating crime was down 25 percent. How does that happen? I mean you can just click a link on your own site to get updated stats.
So while the news in the city is grim, take solace that what will be reported will make you feel better.