“Springfield” was ranked 19th from the bottom in the United States regarding the quality of “the city’s” roads. At least that’s what a local TV station reported. The story itself focused specifically on some thoroughfares in the city which, according to the news report, have become infamous for their poor quality. The public comments on the station’s website connected to the story made generally derogatory statements about the city, its roads, and the city’s general decline. There was something strange in the news story however, the text of the story stated that the ranking was for cities “over 500,000” in population, and Springfield has a population of 155,000.
Turns out the study was not about just the City of Springfield, but rather the entire Springfield Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Springfield SMSA does have a population of just under 700,000, of course that means that the negative assessment of “Springfield’s” roads, though reported as though the ranking was exclusively about the city, was actually just as much about the half a dozen or so other cities in the metro area and all of the region’s suburban and rural communities.
A few weeks ago I saw that the FBI’s uniform crime report was released, but I also noticed that there was very little follow-up in the local media about Springfield’s national ranking. Despite the fact that the report itself discourages comparison by community as the uniform crime statistics are not very uniform, Springfield’s previous appearances in the “bottom 20” cities for violent crime had been the subject of much reporting. I scoured the web and finally found a ranking…and my hometown had dropped (or risen) into the seventies…seventies! I couldn’t find a single local news item on the much improved ranking.
Now, while I don’t think that these statistics should ever be used to make comparisons between cities for reasons I will repeat in a moment…I would prefer it if the local media, so keen to do so when the news is dire, would also report it when the news is good.
I have already written at some length on the ridiculousness of using the uniform crime report to compare cities, but i don’t mind repeating myself here.
One of the issues is that communities are punished for having a culture which reports crime. Steven Pinker addresses the fact that one of the characteristics leading to a drop in actual violence in western society is the new tradition of, as it were, outsourcing retribution and revenge to the state…a major component of which is reporting crime to the constabulary. While reporting crime to the state instead of taking revenge into one’s own hands reduces the actual level of violence in a culture, it increases the reporting thereof.
In large swaths of the United States however, not surprisingly the most violent, this tradition has not taken hold and thus much violence is not reported.
There are also regions where great pride is taken in “limited government” and low levels of taxation…which leads to relative “under policing” and under reporting of crime as well. This was obvious in my analysis of the earlier reports placing Springfield among the most dangerous cities when cities ranked as much less violent overall had many times the murder rate…murder being the one crime most uniformly reported both because the criteria identifying it as such is held in common, and because it rarely goes unnoticed.
Other issues involving comparisons by city have to do with the fact that what different regions identify as “a city” is so different. Jacksonville, Florida covers over ten times the area of Springfield, for example. Given the connection between some types of violent crime related to drug trafficking and gang activity in the poorest neighborhoods, diluting those numbers over communities and neighborhoods which in the northeast would constitute dozens of other cities and towns makes comparing Jacksonville and Springfield ridiculous.
Of course none of that matters when the statistics look bad; it makes a good story. As fraught with problems as the rankings are, that doesn’t stand in the way of media outlets which are looking for a story that can whip up fear and hysteria. In the current situation, where the numbers paint a story of improvement, it gets ignored.
Well, not only does it get ignored by reporters, but even when an editorial is written supporting a promotional effort to improve the perception of the downtown as “safe” no one thinks to reference or link to the new rankings. Even beyond that, a letter to the editor is published claiming that crime is on the increase in the city and that the effort to improve perception is, in fact, an effort at deception.
There is a narrative. The city is unsafe and crumbling. When the facts support that narrative they are highlighted, when they don’t they are either made to fit the narrative, carefully parsed(with the sort of measured thoughtfulness one never sees if the news is bad), or ignored. It’s “truthiness“…ignorance is hiss.