Eternal Sunshine of the Thoughtless Mind
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Eternal Sunshine of the Thoughtless Mind

Photo by David Topping.
Last week, Torontoist spent a good amount of time and energy analyzing homicide statistics in Toronto. From the data we examined, we concluded that not only was Toronto a relatively safe city (insofar as homicides measure overall safety), but that it actually seemed to be improving—and that the media had a responsibility it had been largely neglecting to report the truth rather than sensationalize it.
You need only look at today’s Toronto Sun to see a pitch-perfect example of how to do it wrong. The cover screams “Summer of the Gun…Again,” and, in text beside it, attests: “Despite report calling T.O. safe, shootings up 22% over last year.” Their article inside, written by Chris Doucette, is even worse, heavy on statistics but somehow still light on facts.
Based on today’s Sun, we’ve assembled a guide for media organizations looking to report on crime dishonestly, scare their readers, and—hey, let’s be honest—sell some papers. ‘Cause hey, if they don’t love you, they might as well fear you.

Report facts wrong

Both the print and, so far, online versions read:

Following the Crime Stoppers media awards at police headquarters on July 4, Chief Bill Blair told the Sun he was encouraged by the major drop in the homicide rate.
But, the city’s top cop was reluctant to say more because he’s been around long enough to know how quickly numbers can change.
Nine days later, Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin, 25, were gunned down as they sat in an SUV parked on Richmond St. W. near Bathurst St.

Dylan Ellis and Oliver Martin were killed just after midnight on June 13, not July 13. The date of the Crime Stoppers awards isn’t a typo—they took place on July 4—meaning that the Sun‘s entire timeline is off, not just their facts. Incidentally, at Crime Stoppers’ awards ceremony, the Sun won two awards for “a story about the emergence of YouTube as an investigative tool.” Whoops.

Report facts selectively, or not at all

The article treats it as totally secondary that the number of people who have actually been killed this year, by any kind of weapon, is 28% lower than at this time last year or the year before, and it entirely neglects to mention that the number of people shot in 2008 actually represents a 31% decrease compared to the number by this point in 2006. It does not report that more people died from guns by this point in 2007 (or 2006) than in 2008. Nor does it report that the number of shootings where there were no injuries at all (which increased from 23 to 42) or where the status of the victim is unknown (from 9 to 16)—which we can presume meant there were either no injuries or no serious injuries—completely accounts for the increase in overall victims.

Reports facts from more trustworthy sources condescendingly

In the last 12 days, seven men have been murdered and an eighth is clinging to life following another weekend of shootings in the city. All but one of those victims was gunned down.
This in what Statistics Canada recently called one of the safest cities in Canada.

Statistic Canada’s report demonstrated through carefully collected, analyzed, and fact-checked statistics—sort of that organization’s forte—that Toronto’s violent crime rate was measurably one of the lowest in the country in 2007.

Ignore the advice of the only expert you quote

“It’s alarming, but it’s also summer and there are more people out and about,” [Toronto Police Detective-Sergeant Gary] Grinton said. “I think it’s dangerous to look for a trend based on two weeks.”

Provide no historical data whatsoever

Even though the Toronto Police statistics website includes 2006 data, and data is available in their yearly publications for at least a decade before that (and far, far further back than that from Police Corporate Information Services), the article provides no dates before 2007. To borrow Douglas Bell’s words about that Toronto Life feature, it “fails in even one instance to place this ‘trend’ in any sort of context.” Without any context, the Sun can report something like that Toronto “routinely sees” “70-plus killings” each year, when Toronto Police data going back to 1993 reports only three years with 70 or more homicides: 2005 (80), 2006 (70), and 2007 (84). (Though, again, the homicide rate was still less in those three years than many dates in the 1980s and 1990s.)

Poll your readers about it

Now that the Sun has scared its readers into thinking that Toronto is more dangerous than it actually is, the front page of their Toronto section asks them if they think Toronto is safe. So far, 75% say it isn’t—less a demonstration of the Sun‘s ability to correctly discern the safety of the city than disheartening proof of its ability to completely misshape and distort en masse its readers’ vision of Toronto.