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:
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.