When Double is More Than Double

December 2005

Sensationalism in the press is a topic that I am not particularly comfortable with because I think it is often overblown by critics. I may be especially sensitive to it because I have worked in newsrooms and for magazines and newspapers, so I understand why certain stories get reported the way they do. People get upset when they cry you only report the bad news without stopping to think about how completely uninteresting the good news can be. "Two people killed in shooting" is a lot more interesting than "Nobody killed last night." That isn't to say, however, that sensationalism isn't a real problem from time to time. For example, take this story from 9News.com about new FBI crime statistics. The headline "Murder Rate Doubles Amid City's Rising Crime Trend" is pretty ominous, as is the story itself:

The City of Aurora's murder rate doubled in 2005 while the nation's rate rose by just 2 percent, according to data released by the FBI. During the first six months of 2005 Aurora saw a major jump in several major crime categories compared to the previous year, according to the FBI. Robberies in the city were up 21 percent, aggravated assaults increased by 13 percent and car thefts jumped by 21 percent. The numbers were released Monday as part of the Bureau's look at crime in larger cities across the country. During the same time period, Denver's murder rate dropped by 50 percent. Aurora Police says the city's murder rate has slowed during the latter half of 2005. The city says it has gone to great lengths to decrease crime during that time.

I thought the wording of the headline and story seemed pretty strong, and while I know that Aurora isn't the safest place in the world, the implications of this story seem a little overreaching. So I checked out the FBI report myself, and it turns out that not only did the murder rate double in Aurora from 2004, it actually tripled!!! Of course, there were 5 reported murders in 2004 and 15 in 2005, according to the report, which makes the percentage increase significantly less scary. I seem to recall at least one multiple homicide from the news this year in Aurora, which means that while murders are up, your actual odds of getting killed aren't really changing all that much. The percentage increase of reported murders in Aurora is certainly significant, but the story needs some perspective. If the murder rate doubled, from 100 to 200, then we're looking at a really serious problem. But going from 5 to 15 is explainable -- not justified, but explainable -- if there were a few multiple homicides. There are probably a lot of people reading that story about Aurora crime going, Holy crap! Let's get the hell out of Aurora! and the fear really isn't justified. Sensationalize away, but don't forget the facts and a dose of perspective, please.

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