Wick Communications

Lies, damn lies and statistics

In Ethics on 1 Mar 2012 at 11:39 am

Washington D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier is pictured at left in this photo by Carol Guzy of the Washington Post.

You may have seen that the Washington Post added a lengthy editor’s note onto a story about the way the D.C. police force tracks crime. The newspaper’s attempt to clarify came after sharp criticism from the city’s police chief.

I think all of it – the story, the chief’s outrage, the newspaper’s clarification and especially the resulting thoughtful analysis of crime in the city – serves readers well. What do you think?

The original story points out that the D.C. police use a statistical formula for determining homicide case closures  in any given year that includes cases closed from previous years. As a result, the department can claim to have closed 94 percent of its cases in 2011. But, as the Post pointed out, that includes 40 cases that lagged from past years. Factor those out, and the city has only closed 57 percent of the cases that opened in 2011.

I think the newspaper is absolutely right to point that out. In fact, I may have used words like “trick” and “fudge” as the newspaper did the first time around.

However, the newspaper failed to note that the D.C. cops were merely using the statistical “trick” that is standard in the industry. Meaning, perhaps, that a lot of us newspaper editors should crunch these numbers in our own communities. …

So I think the chief has a point. The newspaper should have noted that the statistical trick wasn’t really a trick so much as standard operating procedure used at departments across the country. Is it done to deceive the public into thinking cops are doing a better, quicker job closing cases than is justified? I would leave readers to decide.

Anyway, it’s in an interesting story and one that I’m sure many in the community found fascinating. In fact, hundreds of readers have commented on the Washington Post website. And the chief herself says, “I think the editor’s note in The Washington Post is a significant step and I appreciate it.”

I’d say there are worse offenses than running a story that points to the way crimes are solved and public resources are used, a story that generates a lot of talk and even some dialogue between the newspaper’s top editor and the city’s police chief.



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