This past December 4, the Miami Herald published a front-page story declaring South Florida "America's Crime Capital."
"Dade County ranked first in total crime among the nation's large metropolitan areas in 1993, according to FBI statistics released today," reporters Dan Keating and Charles Strouse noted. Next to the article, a chart showed Dade atop the list of "Top 10 Crime Areas," with 13,500 serious crimes per 100,000 residents. Broward County ranked fourth, Palm Beach seventh. The FBI was again listed as the source.
To most readers, the item was yet another predictable tribute to the horrors of crime in South Florida. But to Bill Wilbanks, the article was something more: a willful act of distortion by Miami's only daily.
"It's like an annual rite," says Wilbanks, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University. "Every year the Herald gets these numbers and every year it misrepresents them as FBI rankings."
In fact, the authors of the FBI's 1994 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) specifically warn journalists against compiling rankings based on the report's data. "These simplistic and/or incomplete analyses often create misleading perceptions which adversely affect cities and counties, along with their residents," reads the introduction to the annual alphabetical list of crime statistics for about 7000 U.S. metropolitan areas.
UCR writers point out many variables that make it unreliable to compare statistics across geographic areas. For instance, the authors note, some counties (such as Dade) have huge numbers of tourists and foreign nationals who do not count as part of the population base but are counted as crime victims when misfortune befalls them.
Wilbanks complains that the Herald has made a habit of distorting FBI crime stats for big headlines. He's not the only one who's miffed. A year ago, J. Harper Wilson, chief of the FBI division that issues the UCR, wrote directly to Herald executive editor Doug Clifton to protest. "I am writing to register my strong objection to your attributing these rankings to the FBI instead of to your staff," reads Wilson's letter. "Please be assured that we at the FBI do not issue rankings and would not honor such a request."
Clifton responded promptly with a letter defending the Herald's recently published story and noting that the report had mentioned many of the variables cited by the FBI. But Clifton also promised not to portray the FBI figures as rankings in future stories. "We'll make that especially clear next time," he wrote in closing.
And now the 1994 article. While the piece included a section about experts who feel the statistics are flawed, the Herald failed to disclose that some of those very experts are FBI statisticians.
"They just did the same thing again," fumes Wilbanks. "It was as if Doug Clifton had never even received a letter from the FBI." The FIU professor finds it particularly galling that the Herald neglected to mention that the primary purpose of the UCR statistics is not to compare one geographical area with another, but to compare figures from the same geographic area over time. "Had the Herald examined recent homicide figures, for instance, they would have found that the homicide rate in 1994 was the lowest since 1978," Wilbanks observes. "But I guess that kind of news doesn't sell newspapers."
Wilbanks drafted a lengthy letter to the editor in response to the December piece, in which he rebuked Clifton and the Herald for misusing the UCR report. His letter was published a week later A with all mention of the exchange of correspondence between the FBI and Clifton edited out.
J. Harper Wilson is no longer in charge of disseminating the UCR. His replacement, Ben Brewer, declined to comment specifically on the Herald's most recent story. "All I can say is that we stand by what we've noted in the report: We don't want newspapers turning these numbers into rankings," Brewer remarks. "You can draw your own conclusions about any newspaper that does so."
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Doug Clifton says he does recall the 1993 letter from Wilson. "His point was that the FBI doesn't rank cities and for us to make them sound like they do is unfair. I think that's a fairly valid complaint," Clifton admits. "We got sloppy."
The editor, however, was a bit fuzzier about how the Herald treated the report this year. After being re-read the lead paragraph of the recent story, Clifton observed: "That does sound like the FBI ranked them, and that is not so. But if the FBI has taken the trouble to meticulously record these figures and release them," he added, "there should be a reasonable expectation about their validity. If [the FBI] believes their numbers are imperfect, then they need to stop putting them out, because I can tell you, we aren't the only newspaper that rearranges them from alphabetical order into ranked order. That's a natural reaction."
When asked about his written pledge to be more careful with the FBI's figures, Clifton conceded, "I guess we weren't, were we?