The Worrisome Media Narrative Behind the False Post-Ferguson Crime Wave Story

In recent weeks, a particularly noxious trend has emerged in the media. A small uptick in crime in some cities over a short period of time has been blamed — or at the very least aspersions have been cast — on the protests related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Sure, this began as the subject of ultra-conservative op-eds fueling an expected backlash to the social movement, but even neutral media outlets have been making the link by simply asking the question.

Take this piece in the New York Times, which uses the classic “some” and “others” construction to give credence to a theory which has little basis in fact:

Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals — known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles — is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

The next expert they quote dismisses this idea, but it’s already in print by then. Multiple outlets, including Citylab and FiveThirtyEight, have done more legwork, spoken to actual statisticians and crime experts, and crunched lots of data. They’ve concluded that, in fact, there’s no evidence for correlation or causation between these two phenomena. At Citylab, Brentin Mock emphasizes the idea that in St. Louis, the focus for some of this media scrutiny, the crime wave began months before the death of Michael Brown and has been attributed to drugs. Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik crunches all the available data and notes a “less dire picture” than that painted by much of the media:

The wave of crime-wave reporting began this spring with NPR, CNN, theBBC and USA Today, based on just a handful of cities. In August, after theMajor Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) announced results of a survey of a few dozen of its members about crime in their cities, many other outlets — including Reuters, Voice of America and Time — added to the chorus….

The reports have been based on just a small, possibly cherry-picked sampling of cities. The country’s broken crime-data system makes it impossible to know what’s happening everywhere, and the “if it bleeds, it leads” journalistic imperative means the places we hear about often are the biggest outliers.

What we’re looking at is essentially a constructed, or certainly embellished, media narrative. I don’t want to give the media too much credit, and insist that a bunch of headlines have the ability to move mountains. On the other hand, there is tremendous power in a collective story taking off. Take the drumbeats for the Iraq War, for instance, or something smaller: the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. When the mainstream media takes conservative bait, real damage can be done.

This is something that happens frequently with elections. For instance, anyone could have predicted the “Can Hillary Clinton win?” handwringing happening as we speak. Again, Clinton maintaining her frontrunner status for the entire campaign and then winning handily isn’t enough of a story for many in the media. By the same token, but more insidiously, there’s not a sufficiently novel angle in the pattern of structurally racist American police forces killing unarmed black people and those shootings leading to more protests. So, a new narrative is created. In this case, it’s, “Anti-Violence Protesters: Are They Causing a Crime Wave?” As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in a blog post responding to the Times:

“False equivalence” runs contrary to the mission to journalism—it obscures where journalists are charged with clarifying. A reasonable person could read theTimes’ story and conclude that there is as much proof for the idea that protests against police brutality caused crime to rise, as there is against it. That is the path away from journalism and toward noncommittal stenography…

Dips and twists, eithers and ors, these make compelling (or let us say traditionally “compelling”) media narratives. That’s all very well for fiction, or even for a profile story or an essay. But when scrutinizing the news and delivering a summation to readers, sometimes there are simply not two sides. There were not two sides to the question of whether slavery was wrong (a hot debate in its day) or whether women deserved the vote, and as Coates points out, no one equivocates anymore about the reality of global warming or gives credence to people who deny that reality. And there are no two sides to the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has identified a major, major crisis of civil rights and safety and has yet to see a compelling response from the authorities.

In fact, given the statistical correlation between heat and crime rates, there’s probably more blame to be laid on climate change than on protesters. But that’s a less juicy story, too.