Saturday, April 12, 2008

Calibrating the radar

This is the sort of thing the much-maligned "assembly line" model of doing journalism was supposed to correct or catch: a not-very-substantial story that isn't really sure what it's about, and thus bounces from one concept to another without addressing any of them. It isn't an out-and-out Faux News fabrication, but ... well, let's look at it for a bit before we talk about why we shouldn't do this sort of thing. Here's the lede:

Media attention and new campus alert systems established after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech may be responsible for a recent spike in false crime reports on college campuses nationwide.

Catch a bit of question-begging there? The lede's "about" the stuff in the main clause -- the media attention, the new campus alert systems, and what they allegedly may be responsible for -- but it can't be "about" a recent spike in false crime reports unless there is one. So there are actually two assertions that need supporting. How does the story handle them?

In the past two months, at least three false reports have been filed on crimes at North Carolina college campuses. About a half dozen more have been publicized across the country within the past six months.

The so-called editing radar is usually just a kind of rough deduction: Lede mentions a particular phenomenon, second graf offers a statistical representation of that phenomenon, therefore the stats must be some sort of support for the lede. Half a dozen of something in six months -- one a month, if you're scoring along at home -- must thus be some kind of "spike" in false reports of campus crimes. That's worth a little jaunt to library-land.

What's a "spike"? A sharp increase, originally one followed by an equally sharp decrease (the OED suggests it snuck into general use from the lab-coat sciences) but for the past couple decades also meaning just the increase. So one false report of campus crime a month must be a pretty sharp increase. Conveniently, the writer gives us a nice place to split groups for testing, the implied hypothesis being that there are significantly more false reports of campus crime after Virginia Tech (a year ago next week).

Preliminary examination of the data (lighten up; we're trying to sound scientific here) suggests that an out-and-out test would be a waste of time. People lie about crime on or near campus -- well, a lot:

A 19-year-old man from Rockville, Md., lied to University of Maryland at College Park Police when he told them he was robbed at gunpoint near Comcast Center last week, police said. (The Diamondback, October 2006)

An Ohio college student who admitted he faked his kidnapping will be arraigned today on the charge of filing a false police report. (May 2006)

A Florida Atlantic University student who reported she was sexually assaulted Feb. 26 in her car behind a campus library told authorities this week that it was a lie, university police said Tuesday. (Palm Beach Post, March 2006)

It's not new to North Carolina:
A 19-year-old UNCW student who reported she was attacked on campus last week has recanted her story, campus police said Tuesday. (Star-Snooze, August 2005)

... in part because it's not new anywhere:

Authorities say two Presbyterian College students lied about an attack to police because one of them was stressed out about school work. (AP, January 2008)

A former Claremont McKenna College visiting professor who led a campus protest against racism after painting slurs on her own car in March was sentenced Wednesday to one year in state prison. (Press-Enterprise, December 2004)

A ballpark search is always going to have reliability and validity issues; if you ask Lexis for stories in a particular database that include "campus" and "false police report," you don't get stories outside that database, and you don't get stories that say "false report to Smallville police." But we can safely pull the story out of the check-in line and subject it to (ahem) further scrutiny.

"For some people, it's the attention-seeking. For others, it's revenge. For still others, it's the feeling of power they get by watching a college campus react," said Daniel Kennedy, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. "It's like starting a fire, then sitting back and watching the commotion."

No doubt he said it -- this is American journalism, after all, and we don't make quotes up -- but what's the context he said it in? Did we ask him why people in general turn in false cop reports (in which case, we're deceiving the readers, whom we've led to expect a story about why this alleged spike might be linked to Virginia Tech or the new trend in campus alert systems)? Or did we ask him why there's a spike in false reports of campus crime (in which case, we deceived him)? Or did we ask him if there is a spike in false reports of campus crime, and he patiently explained that there wasn't any reason to believe so, and we went back and forth for a while until he produced a quote that fit the story line? One certainly hopes not.

False reports that trigger campus alert systems may not cut into the budget, but they can be costly when it comes to credibility, Capt. Jon Barnwell of the N.C. State University Police Department said.

Interesting, and probably true, but the credibility of campuswide blast alerts isn't any of the story topics we've introduced so far, is it?

Three weeks after UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson was killed, the Tar Heel campus was again on high alert. Senior Brian Sharpe reported a robbery attempt last week. Campus officials sent out e-mails to alert the campus community of possible danger.

The crime was never substantiated. Sharpe was charged with filing a false police report. A second e-mail blast debunking Sharpe's report was sent to students, staff and faculty.

Were these genuinely the same level of "high alert"? An overnight murder a good ways off campus*, and a real-time robbery attempt somewhere near campus (which is what the e-mail blasts are usually trying to address)?

Meagan Shallcross, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, said it was disturbing to learn that the report was fake, especially coming just weeks after Carson's death. "It's always going to scare people, but I think it seems so disrespectful," she said.

Brain hurts at this point. The story's already bloated out of control. What does "it seems so disrespectful" have to do with any of the topics we're trying to cover? Or was the goal to get a quote of some sort, regardless of relevance, from some UNC student?

On Feb. 14, a gunman killed five people and wounded 16 others gathered in a Northern Illinois University lecture hall before taking his own life.

Several weeks later, on March 3, Matthew Haney told authorities at Appalachian State University in Boone that he had seen a gunman near the west end of campus. School officials sent out a campus alert and canceled evening classes.

Authorities later said he made the false accusations because he feared having to pay for damage done to the front door at his campus apartment.

True enough, but doesn't this sort of flatly contradict the premises of the lede? Desire for "media attention" is usually not a factor in what we will hypothesize here as "garden-variety undergraduate cluelessness." And the campus alert system might be the mechanism that spread the false report, but if it is -- a somethingori -- it can't be the cause of the false report.

Well, we could go on and on, as the story does, but things aren't going to change much. There's no evidence of any increase, much less a "spike," in false reports of campus crime (or any indication that anyone made the remotest effort to see if there was one). And of the local examples cited, none support the idea that a desire for media attention, or some sort of teething pains in campus cop technology, has anything to do with any such increase, in the unlikely event that it might have happened. Revenge and power? Out there in some abstract world, perhaps, but no reason to think they're related to anything we bother to address. In short, we have a story that actively subtracts from the sum of human knowledge. On average, you're dumber after reading it than you were when you started.

Which is to suggest, overall, that openly dishonest journalism a la Fox isn't the only kind of bad journalism out there. This isn't a malicious story; it's a potentially interesting story that turned into a bad one because it spends all its time reaffirming received wisdom, rather than asking a few basic questions about how the "conventional wisdom" managed to pass itself off as either conventional or wise.

* About a block from the original HEADSUP-L office; I don't want to hear any challenges about the geography.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Why bother doing any research when you can write another "aren't things going to hell?" story?

2:38 PM, April 13, 2008  
Blogger Denise said...

The worst part, is how bad I felt after reading your entry, imagining the way any of the objections you mentioned would be waved off if they were raised at 10 p.m., or worse; the page would be yanked from my hand and given to a different, more compliant editor.

12:28 PM, April 15, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Yep. Bad stories gain as much momentum as good ones, and by 10 p.m., that's a really big snowball (moving really fast) to step in front of.

4:39 PM, April 16, 2008  

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