When a Trend is Nothing More Than Chance

The epitome of bad data use is when journalists uncover what they believe is a trend in Chicaogs gun violence and then refuse to accept facts that prove it is nothing more than random chance. It is a very common issue in Chicago journalism especially in the coverage of crime and violence. Of course random chance is not the scoop journalists all over town are dying to uncover it is however more often actually what is going on.

WomanThis is exactly what I experienced when I dove in Jeremy Gorner and William Lee’s “Women increasingly caught up in Chicago’s violence” article. I am always interested when the Chicago media covers violence against women issues because the issues are woefully under covered in Chicago.

Sadly, the article seems more like a pitch session going back and forth on facts about a topic rather than a really cohesive look at a burgeoning trend in gun violence that Chicago needs to take notice of.

For the purposes of this blog we are going to ignore the stories of the families’ pain and agony. Of course, having your loved one killed no matter the circumstances is a horrific event. When you are looking for trends in crime and violence the pain and suffering of the families are not evidence. This is a fact that crime reporters would be well served to remember.

So let’s look at Gorner and Lee’s data use:

“Twenty-six females — all adults — have been fatally shot so far this year, more than in each of the past five years, according to the data.”

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

Homicides are almost always a really bad statistic to look at. Once a person is shot a whole host of factors that mostly have nothing to do with the police determine whether someone lives or dies. The biggest factor may very well be random chance. I have written about it previously in a post titled “Propaganda & Homicide Rates.” These reporters are on the police beat; they should know this.

“That’s more than all the homicides so far this year in San Francisco or Seattle or Portland, Oregon, to name a few big cities.”

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

I am really at a lost about why this fact was included in the article. The population of adult women that live in Chicago, ~ 1,100,000, is more than the total population of any of these cities. Not to mention the million plus people that commute in to the city each week day for work and the amount of people that commute in for entertainment each night. This also doesn’t even attempt to account for the people that commute in on the weekends over the course of any given year.  

Also, they should probably have looked at the number of disenfranchised people, poverty rates, rates of segregation, unemployment, etc….. I am not sure about Portland but San Francisco and Seattle are both incredibly expensive to live in and have experienced massive gentrification. It is pretty clear that none of the cities listed deal with any of the massive disenfranchisement on the level of Chicago and thus really shouldn’t be used to compare to Chicago on any level.

“And while overall shootings have dropped sharply in Chicago since an especially violent 2016, the percentage of female victims has steadily risen each year to about 13.5% through June 25, up sharply from the comparable period in 2015.”

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

This type of analysis is great as the motivation to start research but really nothing more. If your research ends and you cannot demonstrate that the supposed trend you discovered is nothing more than chance, then it probably isn’t worth publishing.

““We noticed that, too,” police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a telephone interview when told of more women being in harm’s way. “So we scrubbed it a bit, and what I can tell you is that it doesn’t appear that they’re being targeted. … For the most part, none of these females have a criminal history.””

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

This quote should have been a red flag that maybe this story wasn’t worth publishing. From this quote it seems as if the police looked at it and discovered it is nothing more than random chance. Now, Gorner and Lee should have asked to see the analysis to make sure they did it properly, but the article probably should have died there.

“Others may be the victims of crimes of opportunity, armed robberies gone awry, domestic violence or quarrels that spiraled into bloodshed.

Inevitably, some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

What do you mean may have been? Didn’t you look in to them? What did the detectives working the cases say they think happened? What about the families? The community? What reporting did you do for this story?

“The Tribune data shows that 158 females have been shot in Chicago through June 25, just two more than the year-earlier period. Yet the number of overall shooting victims fell by about 12%, to 1,173 so far this year compared with 1,330 a year earlier. As a result of that drop, women represented about 13.5% of all shooting victims. That number has steadily increased each year since 2015, when women accounted for 8.5% of all shootings, according to the data.”

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19

This comes off as significant analysis until you remember the article is really absent any evidence that this is anything more than just mere chance. Especially when you consider the CPD said they looked in to and there is nothing there. It seems as if Gorner and Lee wants to hint at there being something there but can’t really come out and say it because they have no evidence.

“The numbers for homicides appear even starker. Over the five years of the Tribune data, the number of women fatally shot has risen from a low of eight in 2015 to 26 so far this year.”

Chicago Tribune 6/28/19
This is another example why Chicago needs to create its own body that gathers all the facts around shootings and homicides in order to learn why they are occurring, who the victims and perpetrators are, and what if anything any social service or justice agency could or should have done to prevent them. The Chicago body needs to be independent of the justice and social service agencies.

This use of these stats is what’s starker. One of the Chicago media’s biggest problems has always been their inability to determine what metric should be used to determine if the police have done a good job. So, should we be happy that overall shootings and homicides reduced or upset that what seems to be totally by chance the number of times women have been injured and or killed in shootings has gone up?

This also brings up another question that probably should have been addressed at the beginning. Is the life of a woman worth more than a man’s?

This report has all the trappings of a really in-depth analysis but when you dive in you realize it is a really shallow piece. It certainly appears that besides a quick phone interview with the CPD Superintendent and talking to the families of a few of the victims the Tribune reporters didn’t do any real reporting. This piece is a great example of the all flash no substance reporting that is so endemic of the Chicago media. Had the reporters verified the CPD’s analysis they say they did that might have saved us from this trouble but since they just took the word of the CPD we got blessed with this report.

Author: Tracy Siska

Tracy Siska is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Justice Project.

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