Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Use Your Conclusion

I have written before about the oddly 'naive' way in which the Herald writes about crime statistics. They'll run a lead story like the one on the front page today - "Gangster kids keep time for church" - where the amazing revelation is made that young people aren't the Antichrist. It's not even a thing that happened, it's just something a judge said. Judges say things all the time that don't get reported in the paper - why did this comment get on the front page? The irony is that, despite the headline and start of the story implying that young people are slimy little bastards, the article ends up making the rather sympathetic, if blindingly obvious, point that youths involved in gangs still like their families.

I digress. They run a lead story like that, and then when actual statistics come out that show the murder rate decreasing and the 'increases' in violence to be "driven almost entirely by increased recording and reporting of family violence", it gets buried and left without comment. (You'll notice the above link is in fact an NZPA article, not a Herald one.)

It was with all this in mind that I read this article on page A2 of yesterday's paper. "Crime is someone else's problem", goes the headline, which is itself an interesting take on what the article says.
New Zealanders can recognise crime in other areas, but prefer to dismiss it as part of everyday life in their own, a study suggests.
Ok. Go on.

More than 1400 people took part in a Victoria University survey, Not in my backyard? Crime in the Neighbourhood, conducted by Institute of Criminology director Associate Professor Michael Rowe.

The study focused on four areas - Murrays Bay on Auckland's North Shore, Otahuhu in South Auckland, Westown in New Plymouth and Havelock North in Hawkes Bay. They were selected for their varying socio-economic status, demographic profile and police-recorded crime rates.

The survey found that while more than 80 per cent of respondents agreed - or strongly agreed - crime was a serious problem in New Zealand, 63.2 per cent believed it was a problem only in other areas.

Now, this is interesting. Why would so many people think it was a problem elsewhere? How would they know? Let's read on and find out what the conclusions of the report were.
Respondents from Otahuhu - the area with the highest crime rate - did identify crime as a serious problem in their neighbourhood but, like the other regions, tended to dissociate it from the local community.
"Otahuhu has got a lot of bad people, I know, but not as it's made out to be [that] all crimes are committed by people in Otahuhu."

[...] One laughed off finding comatose teenagers in her yard at weekends.

[...]"But most of them we sort of know because our children grew up in Havelock North so ... I'm not threatened personally by it, it's just disorder, if you can call it disorder."
And.... that's it. That's the article. Finis. It's just a series of anecdotes, with no talk of why these outcomes might be the case. "What an odd paper to publish," I thought. "An academic paper with no discussion or conclusions?" So I decided to track down the one of the authors of the original report, who was kind enough to send me a copy of it. (He emphasised that it has not yet been approved for publishing, but that didn't stop the Herald half-reporting the results.)

What probably shouldn't surprise you is that the report does in fact draw some conclusions, albeit tentative, about why the disparity exists between people's concern for crime in their area and their angst about crime in New Zealand. And it's not like they're buried at the back, where an overly rushed Herald reporter might miss them. The abstract itself starts:
Contrary to much political and media discourse, quantitative and qualitative results of a research study suggest that the New Zealand public do not regard crime and disorder as escalating or serious problems in local neighbourhoods. Across a range of different areas, the study found that a majority of respondents did not regard crime in their local community as a serious problem compared to other districts, neither did they report that it was an escalating problem.
Weird! Because the article didn't mention anything about that!
In contrast, respondents were much more likely to report that crime problems were serious and increasing across the nation as a whole. This discrepancy might be explained by the reliance of the public on media coverage of crime for information on national crime trends and patterns.
Media coverage! Like in the Herald. Later, in the discussion, the authors conclude that such media coverage and populist politics - "Crusher" Collins, anyone? - might have serious negative effects for the country:
That media and political perspectives on crime are inconsistent with public opinion might be of general concern given considerable and continuing legislative and financial investments undertaken as a consequence. They are also problematic since efforts to develop local community policing and community safety community safety initiatives are likely to be hampered if the complexities of public perspectives are overlooked.
The interesting question concerns how it came to pass that an article about an academic criminology study managed to leave out any sort of analysis or conclusion - material that was clear and obvious in the paper that the journalist (presumably) made some attempt at reading. I suppose I don't know enough about how newsrooms work to answer that question. Does the journalist, consciously or unconsciously, leave out material that conflicts with the media's line? Is it an editorial decision, a case of some higher up figure gutting the article? Did the journalist really think that the discussion wasn't interesting or relevant?

It's interesting to see what they did find relevant, with a capital 'R' in big red letters.

You know, I would laugh - look, there's been a crime! - if I didn't think that it (both this article and general crime reporting) was a serious failure to meet the most basic standards of disinterested journalism. I'd really like to hear from anyone who thought otherwise.


On a completely unrelated note - not at all related whatsoever, the Herald assures me - yesterday's Your Views topic was "Is crime a serious problem in New Zealand?" It's possibly the most depressing YV ever, but it's interesting to read in light of the paper discussed above:
Orcinus (Kaukapakapa): Bank robberies are everywhere; living closer to those bank and central town area makes me worry if such incidence falls on to me when I walk aroun the town.


  1. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 4, 2009 at 2:11 PM

    Okay, another Herald fail.

    However, the study conclusion that the discrepancy, quote, "might be explained" by opinions and representations in the media is in itself an opinion and a representation.

  2. I would hope that people are smart enough to be able to work out that if everyone 'everywhere else' thinks crime is only a problem 'everywhere else', that might lead them to conclude that perhaps crime isn't actually as big a problem as is portrayed.

    But given the intellectual desert that is 'your views', I'm not holding my breath...

  3. Wow - solid post James. I don't even have any jokes about this one. Good effort.

  4. James is being charitable by putting 'naive' in quote marks or by implying the journalist was disinterested - in my opinion, the Herald knows exactly what it's doing, and that's selling newspapers. The reason the article never exposes the media as a primary cause for fear of crime is because that'd be shooting itself in the foot. It'd be like McDonalds publishing a study about the causes of obesity. The media is such a huge part of the problem it can't - financially - report on crime accurately.

    This survey isn't a mind-blowing revelation, either - earlier this year, Mediawatch covered a thesis one of its reporters did about the disconnect between crime reporting and actual crime rates. This article
    ( from last year is another example. The end result is sadly stuff like this: "New Zealand is second only to the US in the number of citizens in prison per capita, despite the fact our crime rates are similar to Australia, Canada and Britain".

  5. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 4, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    Okay, no one seems to have caught on to the lack of proof for the assumption that you all are now agreeing with...

    But hey, don't worry about that. It reinforces your opinion: Media is evil, everything it tells you is wrong, society is pretty perfect, crime is almost non-existent, military industrial complexes control your TV yadda yadda yadda.

  6. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 4, 2009 at 4:16 PM

    James W, as your man over at readily admits: "it's almost impossible to prove that crime is rampant or under control."

    With reference to the 'disconnect', he states that there's more crime being reported on the news since deregulation, and references a study to back himself up. That's fine.

    However he does not present any verifiable proof of a correlation between crime rates, media coverage / representation and public perception.

    He presents an assumption based on his own observations, and those of a doctor whose studies are limited to general trending.

    Everything else is just an opinion.

  7. Monk De Wally De Honk: "But hey, don't worry about that. It reinforces your opinion: Media is evil, everything it tells you is wrong, society is pretty perfect, crime is almost non-existent, military industrial complexes control your TV yadda yadda yadda."

    Awesome, except no one here said any of that.

    Media isn't evil; some people in charge of major media publishers and broadcasters are more concerned with dollars than sense. I don't even blame them for it. I don't think they have a secret agenda to make people scared of crime. It's just easier (ie. cheaper) to report crime. It's easier to send a reporter to the courts and get a 'good vs evil' story, get a quote from the police for a 'authority figure said' angle. It requires almost no investigation. And it sells papers and draws hits on the website because fear is a very powerful emotion. Is that so outrageous?

    "it's almost impossible to prove that crime is rampant or under control" - yes, in much the same way it's almost impossible to prove climate change is real, but expert opinion, statistics and the trends they tell, and common sense play a big part.

    A look at crime statistics over the past 15 years show crime has been decreasing while surveys of crime perception show fear of crime is increasing, just like the reporting of crime has been increasing. Studies all over the world have shown a disproportionate media focus on violent and sexual crime, because they're naturally more exciting, even though those types of crime are a tiny percentage of all crime. I recommend a paper near the bottom of this page entitled Changing crime rates? by Dr Gabrielle Maxwell(it's a Word doc):
    It states in part:
    "New Zealand data collected by the author and a colleague just prior to the Olympics on the TV News showed that on average about 20% of the main TV news stories were about crime and about half were stories dealt with on either crime or disasters. Jeremy Rose of Media Watch recently presented data comparing the emphasis on crime and violent deaths in selected lead newspapers around the world; New Zealand came third in the number of such stories (Rose, 2008)."

    There is also interesting stuff here:

    and here:

    What exactly is your point? That the media has no role in the perception of crime by the public? Or are you simply being contrarian?

  8. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 5, 2009 at 12:21 AM

    No, climate change is real. The difficulty is proving that the human race is responsible.

    (Before anyone calls me a Garth Vader supporter, I believe it is. Thank you.)

    But yes, you show that crime is on a downward trend. I accept that, the figures are there. But don't forget crime figures are there for a purpose: to show you and I that everything is getting better. No government will publish figures that are worse, and if they do, they'll have a bloody good excuse why. Crime stats are a political tool.

    But aside from that, you are still making a correlation that is unsupported by scientific or sociological evidence. There are falling crime stats yet a rising fear of crime. But how does that prove the media are responsible? There's a missing link that you have yet to provide. No one and nothing has directly linked the two. All the examples you have provided are opinions.

    I am not being contrary. I am simply pointing out that it is very easy for people to latch on to things that support the way they think, without thinking of looking for the actual evidence that supports their opinion.

    What do you regard 'disproportionate'? Should the media ignore some violent rapes but report others? Perhaps every time someone is murdered the media should wait a couple of days to see whether it's just another domestic or there's something more to it?

    Court stories aren't made up, you know, they happen. And what would happen if the media didn't actually report court cases?

    (Actually, I think we know - the NZ media has very little court presence, and as a result the suppression law has run rampant.)

    Finally, regarding studies about perceptions: How do you quantify and qualify the perceptions of people in the 1940s and 1950s against those of the 2000s? Just what is the methodology of those studies you reference? Did they ask the same people if their perceptions had got worse? Do those people REALLY know? What sort of margin of error is there? There is no scientific way of studying this - it's a wholly subjective subject. 'Ooh I think that I'm far likely to be murdered now than 10 years ago'. Come on!

    Okay, fair enough, I am not saying that the media doesn't have a role in influencing public opinion, but I am saying that people here are very quick to seize on things that sound right but are in fact unsupported by evidence.

    Which is exactly the point the author here was trying to make about the perception deficit regarding crime.

  9. There is a huge difference between expressing one's unsubstantiated opinions in the comments section of a blog, and doing the same in an article published in this country's largest daily newspaper. Despite the herald being a business whose livelihood depends on the number of papers sold, I feel they have a social responsibility to present facts in an unbiased manner, and to explain the motives of their opinions (at least implicitly). We commenters dont have the same responsibilty nor level of accountability to the public.

  10. I'm not so sure that taking an extreme skeptical view of eternal agnosticism is useful here monk De wally. I agree with you that it's perhaps correlation rather than causation, and that its important to weigh the accuracy of our opinions, but as James pointed out in the post, the conclusions are tentatitive only. There is much in science which draws tentatitive conclusions, but the more studies which point to the same results the more likely some causation can be derived. It's called 'tacking' sometimes. To take the view that we cannot meaningfully comment until all available concrete data is in implying a 1:1 connection between media coverage and public opinion on crime, is to sit around probably waiting forever when it seems to me that there is enough there to 'tentatively' put forward the case that James has made. Of course the media can affect public opinion or perception, there are numerous examples of this. And lining up analogous experience of particular public perceptions with those expressed by the media is a useful, even if not incredibly scientific, tool is it not? Not everything need be quantitative all of the time, there are still often useful conclusions which can be drawn from qualitative research.

  11. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 5, 2009 at 1:08 PM

    JP Rocks, think like that, and everyone can say the moon is made of cheese as long as its not in a newspaper. That is a very poor defence.

    Edward, thanks for your reasoned response. But like I say, if you're going to rip something to shreds you need to do so from a position of strength. As I have pointed out all studies in this area are flawed, but that doesn't seem to stop people picking on what sounds right to them and running 30 miles with it.

  12. Monk De Wally De Honk,
    I do agree with your points, and support your assertion that if we're going to critique something it needs to be done on a solid grounding. And running 30 miles with something which may be based on a flawed methodology isn't great practice. I don't have a background in these sorts of sociological studies, so I can't comment on how flawed they are. But the fact that they make an educated, albeit tentative, suggestion as to one aspect of possible cause gives me reason enough to at least think about the probability of that being the case. These studies might be flawed, but that isn't necessarily reason to believe all of their suggestions are inherently false does it?

    Anyway, I think James' post was good. The point was that the Herald omited the findings all together. Not really very acceptable when doing 'science reporting' in my opinion. If the problems with the study's methodology are as bad as you say, then the Herald should not report the study at all, let alone pick out sensationalised bits to sell their two-bit paper while leaving out valid opinions as to the Media's contribution to the problem.
    I am inclined to believe the Herald did that on purpose for personal gain, rather than out of considerations of poorly designed sociological studies.

  13. It is a far better defence than your straw man rebuttal... I didn't say that we commenters intentionally innacurate and put forward misleading arguments, but even if we did, so what? Is this an abuse in power? Is this really a forum that affects how hundreds of thousands of people view the world that they live in? No. This is a comments section on a mildly popular local blog.

    While I understand that newspapers are a business, and that their livelihood depends on selling papers and generating website hits, they are still a public asset that has a responsibility to ensure that information presented as fact is correct and is presented in an unbiased manner. Especially in a country such as ours where there is only one national daily newspaper.

  14. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 5, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    Nor did I, JP Rocks. Why are you always so confrontational? If we are to have a reasoned debate on topics such as this, it's a good idea to back your shit up and not rely on a defence of 'oh I'm only commentating on a blog'.

    If you really do believe that that is a reasonable answer, that we can move debate forward with intentionally misleading arguments and quasi moon/cheese statements, best stick to Ur Vuz.

    If, however you wish to continue a debate that has been started by James W, then please contribute something a little more tangible.

    Thank you.

  15. I'm kind of glad that there's still people who relentlessly cheer on the media in everything they do. It makes me feel a bit better about having such an awful job. I forgot that there were people out there who still think the media can do no wrong. It makes being a journalist slightly less shit. But only slightly.

  16. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 5, 2009 at 2:38 PM

    Hi Edward. Yep, I'd agree with everything you say. I haven't seen the study but I do know that it hasn't been peer-reviewed, so really the Herald has no business reporting it in any form.

    But let's not forget this crucial point: the media reports crimes that do happen - and it is that reinforces what people already suspect and see around them.

    For my tuppence worth, I'd suggest that while news media coverage does influence public perception, it is not the greatest influence.

    It is not a catalyst, it is merely one of myriad contributory factors, and not the greatest by any measure. The effects of social breakdown, images presented by non-factual media, the capitalisation by governments on people's fears to win votes.. all these things are far more powerful.

    Of course, I can't back this up. It's a just a hunch. I'd love to do a study on this type of thing but sadly I have to wade through 1,400 police press releases a day about garden shed break-ins.

  17. Anonymous, sorry to say this but I'm not one of your cheerleaders. NZ media is abysmal.

  18. Monk: "But don't forget crime figures are there for a purpose: to show you and I that everything is getting better. No government will publish figures that are worse, and if they do, they'll have a bloody good excuse why. Crime stats are a political tool."

    If you have any proof that government agencies are falsifying official statistics, be sure to let the Auditor-general know. She will be very interested to follow it up, I'm sure.

    Shame she can't do anything about the media when it fails to intelligently interpret statistics or who reproduce press releases about crime statistics uncritically...

  19. You are a media cheerleader Monk. That much is obvious.

  20. Good Golly Miss Molly. Falsifying is one thing. Re-interpreting is another.

    Adam Curtis explored the targets and statistics culture very well in The Trap. He also explored the politics of fear in The Power of Nightmares, which is available for free on the website.

    I wholly recommend both series.

  21. Meh, I write angry. But I really do think/hope that you are missing my point- do you genuinely believe that anonymous commenters on a random blog should be held to the same level of accountability for their 'articles' as proffesional reporters and journalists? Seriously? Come on man...

  22. If they wish to be treated seriously, yes.

    Exhibiting the standards you demand of others helps cement your argument.


  23. Monk De Wally De Honk,

    Yeah, I gathered that the study hadn't been peer-reviewed yet from James' post, and as you say, shouldn't therefore have been reported on by the Herald at all. That's just bad journalism. And the kind of lack of critical thinking which allows pseudo-science/research to creep into the media such as that terrible 'zm' radio station with that Kerre Woodham lady and her ignoramous opinions on the latest astrological or quasi-psychology musings. But it still begs the question why the Herald failed to mention the conclusions of the study if they were going to comment on it anyway despite it not yet being published. As I said, it's likely because this is the one time the Herald doesn't want to write about the Herald.

    I do definately agree with you that the media is only one of several contributing factors, and that the others you highlight are equally if not more important. This is often the case with many issues - a set of contributing factors rather than just one. But I think allocating the media's impact to a marginal role is underestimating how powerful a tool the media can be in "educating" the public. Of course some underlying societal trends will already exist, but the media in its worst form is one very effective mechanism of bringing it all to the surface as well as reinforcing it. While the reporting of actual crime is fine, one must ask 'why' it is portrayed a certain way or deemed as important as the Herald makes out. In my opinion the reporting style only seems to equate to populist policy propaganda much of the time rather than a reflection of reality. In other words, there are many experts they might seek on these issues rather than 'Barry from down the road'. And in this case they did - they just didn't actually listen to what said expert had to say.

    Anyway, as you say it would be interesting to research. You have raised some valid points, and the issue of media accountability is very interesting. Thanks for your insights. By the way, I don't think the other commenters are fair to claim you as a media cheerleader. While you and I are probably approaching it from different angles, I think your points are quite valid for an intelligent discussion. Anyway, that's my 800 cents worth. Sorry for the ramble all.

  24. Excellent post Edward, thanks for the feedback.

    I still don't understand why people buy the newspaper, let alone be influenced by it. There is nothing of value in it.