Ceasefire as an Irresistibly Delicious Story! (Part III of IV)

The Chicago media and their reporting on the anti-violence program Ceasefire. Part III in a series. In today’s installment we take a closer look at the reporting from the Chicago media on the issues surrounding the re-initiation of State funding of Ceasefire. In previous installments we have examined in detail the audit of Ceasefire’s handling of State money by the Auditor General of Illinois. We have also taken a closer look at the Federally funded Evaluation of Ceasefire from Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Given this context we now take a look at the reporting that was generated surrounding the audit and the evaluation.

There is little doubt that for those that only seek a cursory examination the anti-violence program Ceasefire is a delicious story to report on. A story that reads: State money used by a famous epidemiologist to empower ex-gang members to reduce violence in their communities through talking individuals out of violence. Put together with an independently completed federally funded academic study to verify that the process works along with testimonials from community members and legislators about how badly the program is needed in their communities. Who could possibly want to look any deeper? We now know that the Chicago media did not want to look any deeper. The media in any democracy has a responsibility to distrust all that is provided to them until the material or information is verified.

In the case of Ceasefire the Chicago media drank the juice before really ever looking to see who made it and why it was being provided. In a previous installment I provided details about how the audit completed by the Auditor General of Illinois detailed what can only be described as very serious financial issues with the management of Ceasefire. While this audit played a role in the removal of funding from the program; it obviously should play no role in the decision to refund the program according to the Chicago media. A common practice of the Chicago media is that it suits its purposes to have a very short memory. This practice allowed the editorial boards from both the major dailies in Chicago as well as other local journalists to support re-instituting State funding without having to once again redress the allegations brought to light in the audit. The journalists were overpowered by the “liberal appeal” of the project rather than the realities of how the project was being administered and how the project could not come close to accounting for any of the successes it was claiming.

Examples: Editorials

“Ceasefire needs outside help to continue vital work; The governor’s cuts weren’t based on the merits of Ceasefire.” Sun-Times editorial September 17, 2007

  • “The governor’s cuts weren’t based on the merits of Ceasefire, which as been praised by community leaders, Mayor Daley, and even the governor’s own administration.”
  • “The group {Ceasefire} boasts success in helping to reduce the number of shootings in areas where it works. Early results of a study now being completed at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research back up those claims”

Really, I thought the final results did not even do this. How did the early results of an academic study accomplish something that the final results did not? This is just another example of why social science results need to be carefully examined before being released to the media and the public. This editorial proves that the Sun-Times editorial board just gobbled up and ran with the fact that the community leaders praised the program without every looking independently to verify if the program was working. Even when the Sun-Times was presented with the results of the audit they were ignored in favor of the “irresistibly delicious” narrative of Ceasefire successes.

 

“Let CeaseFire fight” Chicago Tribune editorial November 13, 2007

  • “Five Chicago murders of young people who shared one other distinction: They were shot in — or, in Barrera’s case, quite close to — neighborhoods that the anti-violence group CeaseFire has been forced to abandon for lack of money from Springfield”

It is most important in times of violence and grief that the media act responsible and contextualize in broad perspectives the day’s events; because, otherwise the media may either willingly or unwillingly be a major cause of the passage of bad public policy. There are really too many forces at work in situations of violence in Chicago to just blindly assume or infer that the de-funding of Ceasefire had a role in these five deaths.

  • “In August, Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed $6.2 million that legislators had budgeted for CeaseFire as part of his broader dispute with legislators over funding priorities. In September, a spokesman for the governor said CeaseFire should find different sources of revenue to pay for its operations.”

Once again the results of the audit are conveniently bypassed for a more conspiratorial explanation. Politics must be at work because everyone says this program is working, right? I mean there really isn’t a reason why alderman and other politicians would be less than honest about how the program is working, they don’t have any reason to lie, right? The fact is that everyone from local politicians to the media drank from the same cool-aid without every verifying that it was actually working. Anything, including a damning audit, that was brought to the discussion was quickly ignored or marginalized because it contested the narrative that Slutkin weaved for the media. The job of the media is to challenge narratives, not swallow whole and then regurgitate them verbatim. Examples: Eric Zorn The following two examples contain quotes from questions and answers that were exchanged between the authors and myself. In the case of Eric Zorn from the Chicago Tribune the exchanged took place on his blog. In the case of Alex Kotlowitz from Northwestern University the exchange that is quoted took place via email. PDF versions of the exchanges in their entirety can be found in our FOI Center. Where I quote form the exchanges I have shortened the questions for space considerations, the PDF versions are complete. Kotlowitz and I did speak by phone between the time I sent the original email and he responded in writing. No information from that phone conversation is included in this blog.

 

Blagojevich can fix gaffe on Ceasefire. Eric Zorn column – Chicago Tribune May 13, 2008.

  • “Friday, Northwestern University released a 229-page report concluding that gun violence dropped 17 percent to 24 percent in six of seven neighborhoods where CeaseFire mediators were in place. The three-year study commissioned by the US Department of Justice offered the most striking proof yet that CeaseFire’s trained peacemakers-“violence interrupters”, who are often former gang members themselves-really do save a significant number of lives.”

As referenced in any early post in this series Skogan was unable to parcel out what exactly were the causes of reduced violence (if there were really any) in the neighborhoods covered by CeaseFire. Zorn and the rest of the Chicago media made no attempt to seek out voices that could give an alternative view to the rosy picture painted by Skogan. I believe my post on the Evaluation by Skogan demonstrates the significant flaws in the study and its results.

  • “CeaseFire’s analysis of police data suggests this {cut in CeaseFire funding}has resulted in 170 additional shootings since September.”

Zorn here is using data spoon fed to him by the program’s founder to demonstrate the plight of the neighborhoods that CeaseFire was forced to reduce staff. As a social scientist I cannot imagine a reliable and valid method Slutkin could have used to create this number. As I remember from my statistics and quantitative methods classes pulling numbers from thin air or orifices is not acceptable social science practice.

  • “I didn’t read the audit itself but I read about the audit (which came out after Blago cut CeaseFire’s funding, by the way) and discussed it with Slutkin even though I doubted I’d have any room in the confines of the 600-word column to go into it” (Zorn blog, May 14, 2008)

This was a response I received from Zorn when I questioned him about whether or not he had read the audit because it played no role in his column. Wow, I wonder how much more our most important journalists in Chicago haven’t read about when covering issues. Here Zorn admits to relying on other journalists to do his research, I wonder if they read the audit?

 

Blocking the Transmission of Violence Alex Kotlowitz, The New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2008.

  • Last year, CeaseFire lost its $6 million in annual state funding – which meant a reduction from 45 interrupters to 17 – as part of statewide budget cuts. One State Senator, who ordered an audit CeaseFire (released after the cuts, it found some administrative inefficiencies), maintained there was no evidence that CeaseFire’s work had made a difference.” (New York Times Article, page 10)

Kotlowitz’s articles ran twelve pages and yet this is the only mention of the audit with no true context of the findings. Two sentences were all that Kotlowitz could devote to the findings of an audit performed by the Auditor General of Illinois that had many damning findings. This is a clear example about how the media that covered CeaseFire refused to engage any of the criticisms of the program and instead ran with the narrative that Slutkin has spun without challenge. Via email I asked Kotlowitz “I am curious about why the contents of the audit performed on the finances of Ceasefire did not play a larger role?” His response was “The audit was, indeed, mentioned,” (Kotlowitz email May 15, 2008). Mentioned is the correct word because that is all that occurred. \

  • “Nonetheless, in a report due out later this month, independent researchers hired by the Justice Department (from which CeaseFire gets some of its money) conclude that CeaseFire has had an impact” (New York Times article, page 10).

If Kotlowitz was going to mention the results of the study he should have sought out alternative voices to validate to critique the results instead of blindly running with the results without questioning them.

  • “Wes Skogan, a professor of political science at Northwestern (disclosure: I each there) and the author of the report said, “I found the statistical results to be as strong as you could hope for” (New York Times article, page 10).

I wonder if other social scientists outside the authors thought the statistical results were strong. I wonder if Kotlowitz had the room in the 12-page article to maybe quote other social scientists. One reason he could not is that he was quoting the authors of the study before the study was released; thus, there was no way the results could be verified. Kotlowitz used the results of a yet to be published study as a tool to validate his perspective, and Slutkin’s narrative on CeaseFire and then also quoted the author of the yet to be released study about the strength of their findings. It is very important for the media to be ever vigilant about the so-called “effectiveness” of programs. We live in a city where just about every program has been bastardized or corrupted entirely. The media has a responsibility to seek out alternative voices to check what officials are telling them about the program is correct.

Skogan and the researchers at Northwestern are famous for their pro-police and official program biases. Does this automatically invalidate any research done by the authors, maybe not. What it should do is force journalists to treat the results skeptically and seek out alternative ways to validate their results. It is pretty clear that along with Zorn and Kotlowitz both of the major dailies’ editorial boards also drank the cool-aid. The supporters of Ceasefire were looking for validation in the way of the “independent study” from Northwestern and they gobbled up the results. The problem is that the study did not come down from the heavens but instead was authored out of Northwestern. This is the same group of authors that repeatedly validated the CAPS program, Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy. The public has been denied a serious and rigorous discussion about the issues surrounding reinstituting the funding for Ceasefire because media failed to do its job.

The funding of anti-violence programs is very important to many communities in Chicago, communities where people from the media don’t live or ever venture into. My criticisms about Ceasefire are directed at the leadership and the idea that there is a need to centralize funding for anti-violence programming at a university. I am not really sure what a white epidemiologist from UIC knows about preventing violence in North Lawndale or Woodlawn that people in these communities don’t already know. This question by the way has never entered into the public discourse because the media has continually rejected legitimate criticisms of the program in favor of the narrative spun by Slutkin and the Northwestern researchers.