Photo by SD70MACMAN

Every now and then, a big story revolving around transit comes up and captures the special attention of the local news media, either good or bad.  Whether it was Prop. 1, King County’s $20 car-tab fee, Metro’s ad fiasco, or last year’s bus driver assault, big issues always manage to find their way to the front page, with some attention-grabbing headline to boot. Media portrayal of  transit or any other hot-button topic is never completely unbiased– there’s always a tinge of opinionated framing at the discretion of the author or headline writer.

So it’s not terribly surprising when headline writers cook up a juicy title when they can, especially if it means eliciting strong reader reaction.  Take this KING 5 headline, for example: Neighbors survey Light Rail neighborhood for robbery risk – a great example of correlation conflated with causation.  While this strategy– making some connection with recent notable cases of crime occurring around a relatively new light rail line– might help sell views, it only reflects a mark of poor journalism.

More after the jump.

First of all, let’s do some basic research on crime.  Statistically, if the hypothesis is that transit, especially rail transit, draws crime, then recorded incidents in SPD’s South Precinct should have spiked after summer of 2009.  Monthly data for January, April, June, and October for every year, dating back to 2008, tells the story:

South Precinct crime statistics from 2008 to present

I won’t draw any terribly finite conclusions from this data only to say that crime statistics in the South precinct have been rather consistent for the past three years, yielding no indication whatsoever that the number of incidents took off after Link opened or any other point in time during the three-year period.  Despite the hard facts, though, you can’t ignore the gap between the conclusion that’s implied in the KING 5 article’s headline and the content in the news story.

The reasoning behind picking the Link stations for the crime walks, according to the article?

Organizers picked the location because several of the attacks have happened within a few blocks of the Othello Link Light Rail station, including one that led to the death of hairstylist Danny Vega several weeks ago.

This, to me, is  a big mix-up of geographic correlation.  Just because something happens in an area where another thing happens, causation can’t automatically be assumed.  Where KING 5’s headline errs is the mention of robbery risk by explicitly drawing out the Rainier Valley as a “Light Rail neighborhood” as if Link itself were producing the risk.  When looking at the SPD data, it’s pretty clear that these crimes only reflect the same patterns that have been going on for years in the neighborhood and have little, if nothing, to do with Link, only that they happened be in the same vicinity as each other.

It’s very easy for news media and headline writers to get caught up in a pseudo-sensationalist frenzy where absurd and often fallacious conclusions are drawn.  Too often, news is more about selling headlines and pandering to readers as if the number of angry online reader comments were some measure of success.  When it comes to transit, where the nuances are little understood outside a community like STB, this type of news media can work to damage public opinion against it, and every effort should be made to set the story straight.

25 Replies to “Crime on Transit and the Media Myth”

    1. “It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright,
      They robbed the Glendale train,
      And people they did say o’er many miles away
      It was those outlaws, they’re Frank and Jesse James!”

      Also, Bill Miner, “The Grey Fox”, noted that his last train robbery netted him seventeen dollars and a bottle of kidney pills- which at his age he was really glad to get.

      Of all local transportation modes, especially bus but also including automobiles and walking,LINK is probably safest: camera coverage on trains and stations alike, all brightly lit.

      Anybody alleging LINK is a crime generator would have to show stats that neighborhoods around its stations have gotten more dangerous since July 2009. Any comments from neighbors of LINK stations?

      However, I don’t think there’s anything the matter with residents anywhere getting together on a regular basis and walking around their neighborhood at night. Also, one of best achievements of successful “Transit-Oriented Development” will be the encouragement of healthy activities at all hours, probably best deterrent to crime.

      Mark Dublin

      1. The common-sense things you do to protect yourself around a rail station apply everywhere: Put away the cell phone and the MP3. And go in a group.

    2. The U-district also has high crime and frequent shootings. So let’s close the university, and the crime rate will go down.

  1. Transit crime has always been a newsworthy event. Historically we have films that remind us of old England’s days of “Stand and deliver,” and America’s western gangs that robbed stage coaches or trains from horseback. We’ve got Bonnie and Clyde shot to death in their automobile. People “in transit” are often vulnerable because they are out of control of their circumstance. For one thing, they are in an unusual place for them. And another, is that they are contained, and so become “helpless victims.”

    Most news media are now competing with bloggers and all are loosing credibility. The Seattle Times, 60 minutes, national news of all kinds is owned and edited for readership and for effect. Blogs on the other hand usually allow commentary and discussion mostly unmoderated. This makes blogs a better news source, while what the blogger is saying might not be completely accurate, others have an opportunity to chime in and offer other information.

    I enjoy the STB for just this reason. Thanks.

    1. KOMO-TV is the only locally owned TV station in Seattle. I think it matters to have local ownership in media because they can be far more responsive to the public instead of having to ask someone who’s thousands of miles away in some faceless corporate building.

  2. This sort of poor (or sensationalist) journalism the same root that leads to media bias against racial minorities. While I’d rather have light rail misconstrued as a “cause” of crime than ethnicity, what I really want is decent news coverage.

  3. C’mon. I understand (and in large part agree with) this forum’s inclination to defend transit, but in this case, defense isn’t required.

    The article “Neighbors survey Light Rail neighborhood for robbery risk” is not seeking to disparage transit. The fact is (according to the SPD South Precinct Commander Captain Mike Nolan) that street robbery in the Rainier Valley has spiked in the last few months and the most frequently targeted victims are those walking homw from bus stops and light rail stations.

    I don’t think this is a case of sensationalist journalism slanted against transit.

    1. Because what robber would target someone ensconced in a multi-ton toxin-spewing death roller? Areas with increased pedestrian traffic would logically require increased police presence on foot or bicycle, not officers isolated from the community in patrol cars.

  4. “media bias against racial minorities. ”

    What, like reporting that 50% of all murders in Seattle are committed by black males, 4% of the population? I agree it’s not the train, it’s the people living near it. It’ll be perfectly safe walking home from the future Roosevelt Station.

  5. I think it strange that you expect ‘journalism’ from King5.
    That’s a vehicle for advertisement and it’s revenue, not news.

    1. Of late they show their Texas style media bias. Particularly on their political stunts creating controversy out of thin air.

  6. I’ll be waiting for the headline:

    Neighbors survey neighborhood with roads for robbery risk

    Oh – wait.

  7. Crime in that area has long been left at high levels due to neglect.

    So, what is new are the large number of well-heeled airplane travelers and middle class commuters now coming through or renting TOD apartments and noticing it.

    Still…that was in effect, the Social Engineering part of it…that by bringing in a more upscale audience the area would become less crime ridden.

    1. I’ve often wondered what first time visitors to Seattle think when they pass through from the airport to downtown…considering the RV is very, very different to the iconic postcard views and general notions of what the Sunset Magazine depicted city is supposed to look like. Barred windows and unkempt properties definitely do not paint a quaint scene.

  8. It has nothing to do with Link, and everything to do with the generally decrepit and degenerate nature of the Rainier Valley.

    1. Actually, the street thieves are targetting people with the likelihood of cash in their wallets based on cell phones and music players. Othello has an increasing number of well-to-do denizens. So, yeah, there is a correlation with Link, and the upscale new housing.

      This is no different from the upscale areas of downtown, where pedestrians have to run a gauntlet of panhandlers every block. But at least there are ubiquitous police (which is fair given the concentration of people), so that stick-ups occur only where people wander off the beaten path, and do so alone. (I’m not complaining about the panhandlers, btw, as I believe they have a right to be there and to exercise their freedom of speech, and their presence pushes away the bandits.)

      1. Redeveloping Holly Park has as much to do with bringing in more affluent residents to the area as Link does.

  9. I pretty much travel exclusively by public transit when I’m visiting other urban centers, and have noticed there are basically two types in the US: cities where there are a lot of middle class people riding and those where I’m the only middle class guy on board. Whether hyped or not (and they obviously are), these types of stories (I fear) will not make transit attractive to a wide swath of society, which can’t be good for infrastructure support. Maybe our first really good transit gizmo should have been through a more stable neighborhood just for the sake of PR.

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