In case you missed it, Nevada recently was dubbed by Gannett’s USA Today as one of “the most dangerous states in America.”
Nevada was ranked number two in the most crimes for 2013, just under Tennessee, which takes the top spot, according to the article’s authors. The origin of the claim is the 2013 release of the FBI’s annual crime statistics.
The USA Today, along with dozens of other media outlets, was regurgitating 247WallSt.com when listing statistics like this for Nevada: Violent crimes per 100,000 people in the state are at 607.5. The poverty rate is 16.4%. The percent of Nevada’s population with an undergraduate degree or higher is 22.4%. And: Property crimes per 100,000 residents are the 23rd highest in the U.S. at 2,809.4. The exact words from 247WallSt:
“Nevada ranks among the worst in the country for its robbery rate, motor-vehicle theft rate and aggravated assault rate. It also ranks high in categories like burglaries and forcible rape. Much of the crime, state officials maintain, comes from the swarms of tourists who visit Las Vegas, Reno and other cities with casinos and related entertainment. Factor out the casino traffic in Reno, and local crime rates are similar to the rest of the nation, Emmanuel Barthe, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada Reno, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. Nevada also has among the lowest high school and college graduation rates.”
What’s unfortunate about the news media’s characterization, and choice of statistics to list together – crime, educational attainment, poverty rate – is that analysis of these trends relies on only one source who isn’t even cited in the article as supporting the listing of these figures altogether.
Most egregious, the reporters ignore the specific recommendations from the FBI about drawing too many conclusions from the crime data. The exact caution issued publicly by the FBI is available here. Here’s the first paragraph:
“Each year when Crime in the United States is published, many entities—news media, tourism agencies, and other groups with an interest in crime in our nation—use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction. Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents.”
In short, don’t do exactly what the news media did. They comingled select and incomplete statistics that weren’t in the original FBI report. And they used only one expert source to provide context for their article.
To their credit, the authors cited a UNR professor who helped explain Nevada’s statistics, but that didn’t stop them from making grand claims about which states are “the most dangerous” based on incomplete datasets.
Had the authors been paying attention in their social sciences courses, they would have perhaps remembered a source such as this one, which explains the shortcomings with the FBI crime report’s methodology.
The most obvious is that Uniform Crime Reporting presents only part of the picture of crime in the U.S. Another measurement is the National Crime Victimization Survey, “which ask(s) victims of crimes about their experiences … partly in response to the inability of the Uniform Crime Report to provide accurate estimates of the dark figure of crime.”
The article made for a nice headline and a two-day media blitz. But at the end of the day, the news reporting was mostly meaningless as to the complexity of the serious issue of crime in America, and in Nevada. It also created a false and widely asserted impression that Nevada is a highly dangerous place to visit.
That is what’s dangerous: Because if supposedly informed journalists can’t reliably filter public information, how can we expect their consumers to also reliably understand it?
Bob Conrad, Ph.D., is co-founder of ThisIsReno.com and author of Spin: How the News Media Misinform and Why Consumers Misunderstand.