A guide to covering crime statistics

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous
Police car

Crime reporting is one of the most important pillars of news coverage, but journalists on the beat face a daunting task.

It's often difficult to find the truth about crimes and crime statistics. Reporters must learn how dig through lengthy crime reports heavy with jargon and numbers. What's more, reporting crime can be complicated by local or national governments that have a stake in downplaying crime, notes fact-checking site Africa Check. Meanwhile, other sectors, like the security industry, have a stake in promoting the fear of crime and criminals.

Africa Check, a non-partisan organization which promotes accuracy in public debate, and the Institute for Security Studies have released a guide to crime statistics “to help reporters avoid the dissemination of myth and misinformation around crime, and to be able to provide accurate and contextualized information.” Here are some useful pointers from the guide:

Numbers, ratios and rates

  • Ratios provide context. Crime statistics are usually presented in terms of raw numbers and crime ratios. When reporting on crime, using ratios (usually per 100,000) provides context and accounts for population changes. While crime does not necessarily grow with a country’s population, the total number of crimes can be expected to increase as population does.

  • To create an indication of frequency, divide the total number of incidents over a defined period of time to represent the rate at which specific crimes take place. These rates should be used in tandem with population size.

  • People vs. property. Using ratios to establish levels of crimes against property or objects (vehicle hijacking, business robberies) instead of individual people may provide an inaccurate indicator of risk. For example, there may be 10,000 people living in a particular area, but only 75 businesses. Include this information to put crime reports in context.

Categories of crime

  • Understand crime definitions. Crimes can generally be divided into three groups: 1) crimes against a person -- generally referred to as “contact crime” where a person or people are injured or harmed or threatened with injury or harm; 2) crimes against property -- in which the victim is absent or unaware of the crime at the time; 3) crimes detected by police action -- crimes that are not reported by the public but detected by the police.

  • Violent crimes have the largest impact on public fear. Broad crime categories help explain the “motive and modus of crimes,” help the public to gauge risk and shed light on the effectiveness of crime prevention strategies. Once violent crime drops, communities start to feel safe and will be better able to deal with property-related crime.

  • Know the nuance between crimes. The decisive factor separating “robbery” from “burglary” in many countries is the use of force or violence against another person during the crime. In other words, a robbery involves direct threat or use of violence, while a burglary means there was no contact between victim and perpetrator.

How to use the data

  • Provide relative context. When seen without the right context and interpretation, crime statistics can obscure more than they reveal. A simple national average does not provide a good basis for understanding the risk of crime in a specific location. A recent UN report on homicide cited Cape Town’s murder rate at 41 per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the 2009 national average of 34.1. However, the murders were concentrated in the poorer parts of the city, making the risk in those areas much higher.

  • Be careful when making international comparisons. Attempts to compare crime in different countries often fail to account for differences between varying legal definitions of crimes, reporting rates of crime, and the accuracy of crime data. For example, in 2009 there were 15,241 murders reported in the United States and 16,834 reported in South Africa. In terms of pure numbers, the two countries murder rates appear similar. However, the U.S. population at the time was 307 million while South Africa’s was a little over 49 million, giving South Africa a murder rate 6.9 times higher than that of the U.S.

  • Anecdotes are important, but don't use them alone. Anecdotal crime reporting shifts the focus back to individual victims, which can be useful in storytelling. But anecdotal information should not be used alone. Anecdotes too often focus on cases of extreme violence or in which prominent figures are involved, and stories alone can miss the bigger picture.

To access the full guide, click here.

Africa Check is a winner of the African News Innovation Challenge, a project of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellowships. Global media innovation content related to the projects and partners of the Knight Fellowships on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.

Image courtesy of Africa Check.