Community Perspective submission by Hilary Moore
Truth is more than just the absence of lies. It is provision of all relevant facts in an unbiased and digestible manner. This is what our community deserves, particularly when the information presented is relevant to the current conversation about potentially dedicating $39.4 million of taxpayers’ money towards a jail expansion.
The Daily New-Record’s Sept. 27, 2021 front page story, Council To Hear Crime Report From Justice Planner, presents an example of technically true information, but nonetheless misleading presentation. I intend to use it as an example of “media bias” or “manipulation” in my Criminology course at EMU next semester.
The front page of Monday’s DN-R showed a graphic from Criminal Justice Planner Frank Sottaceti’s crime report, previously presented to the Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) and yet-to-be-presented (at the time the story ran) to the Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday the 28th. Since it had not yet been presented, accompanies by Mr. Sottaceti’s explanation, there were many missing pieces of information.
While the graphic is technically accurate, the DN-R depiction did not clearly show measurements on the horizontal and vertical axis – year and number of crimes. It did however print the title of the graphic clearly, “Violent Crime 1986 to 2019 City of Harrisonburg VA +332%.” That appears to be the message that the public was supposed to get. It is a shocking message, and its presentation is all the more significant amid the current Middle River Regional Jail expansion conversation.
While it is true that the city’s number of violent crimes have increased at a rate that has outpaced the population increase, annual population is not depicted in this graphic. This is tantamount to saying that five crimes in a population of 200 is the same as five crimes committed in a population of 20,000. However, in a population of 200, five crimes would result in a crime rate of 0.25, which five crimes in a population of 20,000 would result in a crime rate of 0.0025. Clearly, despite the equal raw numbers of crime data, population matters – the larger population is safer.
To get a complete picture of what is happening in Harrisonburg, we also need to consider annual population changes – the crime rate – not just raw crime numbers. This is what the DN-R’s front page graphic failed to present.
After Sottaceti provided this same presentation to the CCJB earlier this month, I specifically questioned how this information would look different if it were depicted as a crime rate, rather than as raw numbers. I got no response. As a concerned citizen and one active in both the CCJB and the Valley Justice Coalition (as well as a local attorney and professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice) I wanted a more realistic depiction of what’s happening in our community. Therefore, I took the liberty of calculating crime rates through time myself, using the violent crime numbers from Mr. Sottaceti’s report as well as intercensal population estimates from the US Census Bureau.
This is what the full picture looks like:
Yes, our City has been in a period of increased crime rate since roughly 2010, with the crime rate increase of 38.5%, from 18.4 in 2010 to 25.5 in 2019. This is not good news, but it is a far cry from what the panicked and sensationalized 332% increase headline.
It is also true that our current crime rate is less than it was from roughly 2006 through 2009, and from 1998 through 2003. In fact, if I compare the crime rate in 1999 (39.1) and compare it to the 2019 rate (25.5), our City’s crime rate has gone down by 34.8%. Although true, this too is misleading. Just like the graphic printed on DN-R’s front page.
Furthermore, the publication of these truthful but misleading statistics diminishes the hard work of our police, workers within in the criminal justice system, and other criminal justice-related community organizations. These folks deserve not just credit, but praise. Some put in the time and effort pursuant to their employment, and many others sacrifice their time and efforts without pay, simply because they care about our community. The last thing we want to do is create more burnout. Instead, we want them to know that when our community and local press express concerns, they are real concerns. We aren’t just crying wolf.
It is irrelevant whether the DN-R’s persuasive use of truthful statistics was done out of ignorance or intention. Under any circumstances, our community deserves better. We deserve the whole picture. We deserve the truth.
Hilary Moore is a pro bono attorney and adjunct professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Eastern Mennonite University. She lives in Mount Crawford on a small farm with her husband and three children.