The University of Minnesota’s Eric Ostermeier is a numbers guy, so he knows small sample sizes can mislead. But he isn’t too fond of “panic-ridden headlines” that exploit such situations.
Ostermeier, a research associate at the U’s Center for the Study of Politics, is taking a victory lap this morning. Despite seven Minneapolis murders in the first three weeks of January — including a triple slaying at a Seward convenience store — the city’s 2010 total stands at 39 with two weeks left in the year. That’s the second-smallest number since 1986, Ostermeier notes.
Back on Jan. 12, Ostermeier wrote: “Episodic events at the beginning of the year should not be cast as signs that the City is in the midst of a violent crime frenzy.”
Two weeks later, City Pages blew through the stop sign, with only a brake-tap question mark: “Minneapolis homicides: Murderapolis redux?” read the headline.
In the context of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s run for governor, it was a powder keg. By June — after DFL delegates had snuffed Rybak’s hopes — Ostermeier predicted the city’s murder figure would be average.
“Which leaves one question for the Twin Cities media,” he taunted. “Will they report with as much gusto that the city’s murder rate in 2010 is not out of the ordinary as they did that the sky was falling in January?”
It’s an excellent question that — barring a wholesale slaughter in the next 16 days — readers should watch for, and editors should act on.
Yes, we are a calendar-obsessed, math-challenged people, where January murder numbers somehow get bigger play because everybody gets to play the extrapolation game. It’s like when Adrian Peterson runs for 100 yards in the first quarter and people chatter about a 400-yard game. That speculation is fun; hanging the word “Murderapolis” on a city is something that requires better judgment.
Still, Ostermeier needs a little bit of humility, too. Are the other headlines he cites really that bad?
“2010’s violent start unsettles city” (Star Tribune)
“In Minneapolis, why the jump in homicides?” (MPR)
Both limit themselves to the immediate; whether anomaly or not, a cluster of killings is newsworthy. Even the City Pages story — which focused on Rybak’s political damage — did not ignore context:
Extrapolating from just a month of data, however, isn’t always a good idea. Minneapolis experienced a similar rash of homicides in 2007, with five in the first two weeks of the year. If those numbers held up, the city would have been on pace for 122 homicides that year. The city tallied only 47.
Reporter Emily Kaiser even quoted Ostermeier, choosing a comment that was more anodyne than his blog post — and featured the capital-M word that was carved into the headline: “People started to wonder if we have really turned the corner to Murderapolis or is this just a front-loaded beginning of the year?”
Look, 40 killings is still bad, even if it’s “better” than average. And it is double 2009’s 19 — allowing publications like MinnPost to continue writing about “Minneapolis murders on the rise,” even if last year is the one that looks like the anomaly. But Ostermeier is right that it’s not fair to hype the first quarter without covering the final score.