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Media Hype and Distortion

A recent column by Steven Levitt in the New York Times on the subject of homicide is unusual. In this column he is referencing a recent study by James Fox of Northwestern University. Fox is one of the most often quoted criminologists in the country when it comes to homicide (here's the link to his report).

The media are typically selective in their treatment of the subject of crime.  Typical headlines dealing with Fox's report include this one from the New York Times: "Homicides by Black Teenagers Rise, Bucking a Trend."

What's unusual about Levitt's column is that he notes that the media have focused on the numbers rather than rates of homicides.  Also, bucking a common tendency in the media (and by some criminologists) he uses a longer time frame in his discussion.  (To his credit, within his report there is a section where Fox does use a longer time period and includes rates, but the main focus by him and the media is on the numbers and the period since 2000.)

A friend once told me that when he was getting his MBA he learned about the phrase "maximal starting and stopping point."   What this means is that to make your point or prove a hypothesis (whatever it is) you simply select a time period that is most convenient and ignore a different time period, one that would disprove your hypothesis.  So in Fox's case (and the headlines that have been generated) it would appear that all of a sudden black youths are on a killing rampage, when in fact this is not true at all, when using a longer time frame. In Fox's report there are several graphs showing that homicide rates peaked in the early 90s and then went down considerably (the time period was from 1976 to 2006).  Only in the last two years have the rates gone up and only slightly.

You get a completely different picture of a problem when you take into considering fluctuations in the size of a population. 

Here's something I picked up quite by accident in the Boston Globe recently.  The subject was homicide. Note that the writer is referencing Fox. 

However, if you look more closely within this story you will find a link to where these homicides are occurring. This is classic "Chicago School" stuff that is largely ignored by both Fox and the media. 

Although Fox does include in his discussion the need for preventive measures, he (and the media) largely ignores the underlying socio-economic conditions of the inner-cities, which have been suffering depression-like conditions long before the latest collapse of Wall Street.  (It's funny how when depression-like conditions start hitting the "middle class" it makes headlines, but there are no comparable headlines when it hits just the inner-cities, as it has been doing for several decades, with a slight improvement in the late 1990s.)

Most of the discussions about crime by politicians and the media (and too many criminologists) focus on "reforming" the criminal justice system, which can be translated as: let's make the current system more efficient at processing the underclass (mostly black and brown people) while ignoring the underlying causes that have been documented for more than 100 years!  It is almost as if they are saying: "Let's let these conditions continue and watch these people get high and kill themselves, but at least we will be able to respond more efficiently and lock them up once they get arrested. Maybe then they will learn their lesson and refrain from committing these crimes."  In this way of thinking, crime is like a natural disaster and the best we can do is "batten down the hatches" and wait until the storm (crime) passes through.

Keywords: adult corrections, racial disparities, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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