- - Sunday, September 17, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In a Sept. 1 “fact check,” The Washington Post claimed to evaluate Attorney General Sessions’ comments about rising violent crime in the United States. Specifically, this “fact check” is of Mr. Sessions’ repeated statements that “violent crime is on the rise in America, especially in our cities.”

The Post lists several examples of those statements, including, “across the country, violent crime is back with a vengeance,” “As you have experienced violent crime is on the rise in America,” and “As all of you know first-hand, our nation’s violent crime rate is rising. In many of our urban areas, this increase is staggering.”

The factual claim made by Mr. Sessions is that violent crime is rising. Then, Mr. Sessions characterizes that rise as “staggering” and “with a vengeance,” both of which are obviously subjective terms to express the astonishing rate of the violent crime increase. The Post immediately follows the attorney general’s statements by tacitly admitting their accuracy, before arguing with his use of the word “staggering”:

“In 2015, the total number of violent crimes increased by 3.9 percent nationwide, and the violent crime rate increased by 3.1 percent nationwide, according to data from the FBI. The increases represent the largest single-year increase in the violent crime rate since 1991, but it is hardly a staggering rise.”

Despite the fact that the attorney general has traveled across the country talking with the United States Attorney community, members of law enforcement on the front lines, and victims and their families, The Washington Post apparently believes itself a better gauge of what is staggering than those fighting violent crime or those that have been affected by it.

After declaring that the increase in violent crime and its victims are not important enough to generate an opinion that the rise is “staggering,” the so-called “fact check” twists Mr. Sessions’ statement about crime rising — which is clearly supported by the data — into a claim of a multiyear trend starting earlier than 2015. This is the definition of a straw man argument, but apparently that passes for “fact checking” at The Washington Post.

The Post continues by arguing that one year of data cannot constitute a trend and that some criminologists “recommend using a minimum of three years to understand crime trends.”

Let’s break this down. In service of a “fact check,” the Post admits the accuracy of the attorney general’s data but then argues that what some academics recommend as a method of interpretation is equivalent to fact. It would also seem that The Washington Post is advocating that we should just let violent crime continue to rise for a few more years before doing anything about it.

Try explaining to the communities most impacted by skyrocketing homicide rates that they should wait a few more years until a criminology professor has enough data to write an academic article.

If the increase in violent crime was merely “random noise in the fluctuations,” or typical of “small increases month to month and year to year,” as suggested by the Post, then there is no explanation for the fact that the 2015 increase in violent crime was the largest single-year increase in nearly 25 years, or the fact that the homicide increase of 10.8 percent in 2015 was the largest single-year increase since 1971. You might even call those increases staggering.

In this case, the Post argues (incorrectly) that the attorney general’s statements “are a distortion of the facts” and graded his statements “whoppers” or lies. Yet, what we know is that this is merely because the Post disagrees with the interpretation of the factual data. It’s sad but increasingly understandable that a Gallup poll in September 2016 found that only one third of Americans say they have even a “fair amount” of trust in the media — an all-time low. And that’s the truth.

• Ian D. Prior is principal deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Justice.


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