Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Journal Sentinel’s Attack Dog

Two stories this week continue its relentlessly biased coverage of Chief Flynn and the police department.

By - Aug 22nd, 2012 11:53 am
Police Chief Ed Flynn

Police Chief Ed Flynn

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a mildly interesting watchdog story telling us that FBI audits of local police department crime data are “shallow” and infrequent. Fairly ho-hum stuff for Sunday’s front page, but the story, you see, was also part of the paper’s continuing effort to justify its misleading attack on Chief Ed Flynn and the Milwaukee Police Department for supposedly manipulating crime data. Sunday’s story let us know the FBI audit is far too small scale to uncover data screw-ups by Milwaukee police. Hence the need for ever more JS watchdog stories — all written by Ben Poston —  attacking the department.

The newspaper’s original watchdog story, as a column I wrote in June noted, “could have been a snoozer story about bureaucratic errors in computer coding which resulted in a minor, three percent difference in how violent crime was recorded.” Instead, the JS led readers to believe something nefarious was afoot, running quotes from experts calling the mistakes “suspicious” and proof of a “failure of leadership,” a likely sign of deliberate misreporting, “playing fast and loose” with data and “cheating the public.”

As one expert quoted by the newspaper put it, “These are not accidents. Somebody knows what’s going on. Somebody understands the implications of reporting it this way… The question is: Who is making those decisions?” Gee, I guess that would be Chief Flynn.

The story was filled with logical and evidentiary holes, all itemized in my column. The newspaper’s major finding was that 500 aggravated assaults had been misclassified as simple assaults, thus lowering the violent crime rate by three percent in 2011.  So Flynn’s team scoured through their data, reviewing 34,000 “assault-type reports” from 2006 through 2012 which included disorderly conduct, simple battery, family offenses and other incidents, some of which might have been more accurately coded as aggravated assaults. The point here is obvious: if computer coding mistakes are being made, it’s quite likely the errors could go both ways, to upgrade non-felonies as violent crimes as well to wrongly downgrade aggravated assaults as simple assaults.

Sure enough, the department review of six years found that while 5,307 crimes were under-reported (for example, calling an aggravated assault a simple assault), 1,176 crimes were over-reported as more serious than they actually were. The adjusted totals for 2011, the key year — and the basis for the entire Journal Sentinel attack — showed crime actually declined by more than the department originally reported.

The review also found that computer errors were actually higher under  Flynn’s predecessor, Chief Nan Haggerty, further undercutting the newspaper’s suggestion that Flynn was cooking the books.

The results, presented at a Common Council meeting provoked outrage from aldermen, most of which the newspaper of record chose not to report. As Alderman Jim Bohl put it, the newspaper’s “smoking gun has just turned into a pop gun.” Bohl called on the newspaper to admit the problems with its reporting. “If you are a responsible publication then you report it.” His quotes never made it into the JS story on the meeting.

Alderman Joe Davis noted that he hadn’t heard from one member of the police department complaining that he or she was instructed to misclassify data. The newspaper didn’t report this.

Nine alderman published a statement accusing the newspaper of misleading the public. The newspaper did report this, but did not link readers to the statement, didn’t publish it in its entirety and didn’t quote some of the strongest charges, including these:

“It should be noted,” the aldermen declared, “that before issuing this statement many of us pleaded with the reporters and editors at the Journal Sentinel to correct their own mistakes. They refused.”

The paper “went beyond facts, and it used poor methodology to get there. In statistical jargon, it ‘failed to set a baseline for comparison’ when it asserted that crime was up, not down. This was immediately obvious to anyone with any statistical background who reviewed its coverage. This was pointed out to the paper repeatedly — but it stuck with its story.”

“We will not speculate as to why the paper of record… has spent weeks misleading the public. But the facts are that it has and the public should know.

‘That misleading information — whether deliberate or sloppy — needs to be corrected by someone.”

The JS ignored all this and focused on one sentence, where aldermen charged the newspaper told the public that the mistakes in data “were done on purpose in order to fool the public…” The JS story jumped on this, with a quote from editor Martin Kaiser that such a claim was never made in its original story. In fact, as I’ve noted, the story was studded with quotes from experts suggesting the computer errors were done to cheat the public.

If there was any doubt the newspaper intended to continue beating up on the department, Sunday’s story on FBI audits answered that question. The story twice reminded us the JS previously found 500 aggravated assaults that were wrongly called simply assaults and twice told us the internal review by Flynn’s team showed more than 5,300 aggravated assaults were underreported since 2006. The paper made no attempt to balance that off by noting the department’s review showed it had also made errors that over reported violent crime, and that the errors had declined since Flynn became chief and that violent crime had actually declined more than his department had reported.

The Sunday story also told us the department’s 20 percent error rate is 10 times higher than “the national standard.” But nowhere in the story does the newspaper tell us how many police departments in the nation actually meet this standard. In fact, its story has quotes from experts saying that computer data problems are widespread in police departments and that they need to do “far better audits” of data.

If this problem is so widespread, it completely undercuts the original watchdog series, which suggested Milwaukee’s department stood out nationally for its sloppy data.

Yet the newspaper continues to flog Milwaukee mercilessly. Today, it ran a front page, top-of-the-fold story telling us that Edward Claughton, the consultant chosen by the city to audit the police department’s data, has publicly supported the department against the newspaper’s stories.

The first question that comes to mind: if this is a nationally-known analyst of data who questioned the JS analysis, why wasn’t he ever quoted in the newspaper’s stories assailing Flynn for alleged data manipulation? It confirms my suspicion the newspaper went shopping for experts to criticize Milwaukee, and ignored any who might have supported Flynn.

Indeed, today’s story shopped for the one alderman, Bob Donovan, who can be depended on to support the newspaper’s thesis that Milwaukee is on a campaign to mislead the public about police data. Not one of the nine alderman who criticized the newspaper is quoted in today’s story. The story also sought a quote from police union leader Mike Crivello, who is a constant critic of Flynn.

As to whether Claughton and his PRI Management Group can do an objective job of auditing the department’s data, my guess is that his views would be shared by most other experts in the field. Indeed, the newspaper’s Sunday story told us that data errors are widespread in police departments.

Claughton told the newspaper he is a certified auditor who must be “100 percent” objective and must follow strict auditing standards. And Claughton surely knows the newspaper will jump all over him for the smallest error. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine him producing a biased report.

But I’m guessing the Fire and Police Commission will be pushed to hire some other expert. If it doesn’t the JS will keep attacking.

The issue at this point has nothing to do with accurate crime reporting and everything to do with the JS justifying its consistently biased coverage of this issue. It’s a truly sad situation. As the aldermen’s statement noted about the newspaper, “it is our sincere hope that… the public is not forced into a crisis of confidence in regards to this important institution. We all want to live in a city with a great, responsible and trusted newspaper.”

These sentences, needless to say, also went unreported by the Journal Sentinel.

Categories: Murphy's Law

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Journal Sentinel’s Attack Dog”

  1. Jim Bouman says:

    Speaking of statistics, is there anyone else out there who’d welcome a review of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its decades-long program to inflate the figures that emerge from the Audit Bureau for Circulation (A.B.C.). When I used to pick my daughter up from the dorm at Mt. Mary College on weekends, there were bins and racks of free-for-the-taking, no-charge Sunday editions all over the campus and dorms. The racks would be just about as full on Tuesday morning as they were on Sunday morning.
    This newspaper is run by fakes, frauds and finaglers. The management and Board don’t need Bain Capital to stripmine the reminder of this once-passable newspaper as the set-up for liquidation–they’ve got the plan and the schedule and the will.

  2. Stacy Moss says:

    I feel bad for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and reporter Ben Posten. The only explanation that begins to account for their behavior is that they have been deeply embarrassed by their amateur statistical mistakes.

    Think about it…. what are they going to do other than circle the horses and try to make the best of a terrible situation? I mean, these stories were a really big deal. They got to save face rather than admit they are producing a defective product that actually had the overall effect of making the police department job a lot harder.

    If you are still worried about response time, thank the MJS for making sure it now takes twice as long for cops to fill out the forms.

    In the meantime, all we can to do is hope the software update for the paper will correct the over-heating problem.

  3. judith ann moriarty says:

    Ms. Moss: Assume you mean “Circle the wagons?” My sis is active in Kansas City stuff and they had similar problems with police computers. Journalism these days, is as much about what isn’t said, as what is. Question: if an inexperienced reporter goes on record and asks his editor why only
    specific quotes are used and others are left out, is that reporter then “off the hook?” are editors morally obligated to include both sides when they’re shaping a story? Anyone care to answer this?

    thanks Bruce

  4. Stacy Moss says:

    Hold your horses, Ms Moriarty.

    You got to circle the horses to circle the wagons.
    And what happens if you don’t have wagons?

    re: the moral obligation of editors.

    Thou shall not kill the truth with both sides of every story.

  5. Milwaukeean says:

    Jim Bouman, for some reason, this story also had me thinking about the JS circulation department, although not on such a meta scale as your excellent suggestion for an audit.

    Nope, the parallel that came to me is that sometimes, the JS underdelivers my paper. I get none. It’s a crime! It’s a JS circulation department conspiracy!

    Of course, sometimes, the JS overdelivers my paper, after I call in about the underdelivery, and hours later — after I have given up and caught up online — two papers land on my lawn. But I am not going to report that, because it would suggest that the problem is that people make mistakes.

    Heck, here’s another searing expose: I know three people who cancelled the JS, years ago, but they still get it overdelivered. I’m not going to report that, either . . . but, hmmm, I bet that overdelivery sure helps the JS cook its circulation books, huh?

  6. Bill Sweeney says:

    Imagine that you are a police officer who works for the Milwaukee Police Dept. You work hard at what is often a difficult job to provide good service to the citizens of Milwaukee. At times you may risk your safety. More often you are placed in stressful situations which you are expected to handle fairly and firmly. You take pride in your job. Then the newspaper which is the predominant source of information for southeastern Wisconsin casts considerable doubt on the integrity of the organization you work for. Could be disheartening

    Imagine that you are a reporter for the newspaper which is the predominant source of information for southeastern Wisconsin. You work hard to provide solid, accurate information without bias or prejudice because you know that an informed public is an essential part of democracy. You are proud to be a journalist and believe it to be an honorable, vitally necessary profession. Then you learn that the management of your newspaper is dishonoring the profession by presenting a slanted viewpoint that could have a negative impact on public safety. Could be disheartening.

  7. bruf says:

    Sniping at MPD by the J-S lets Sheriff Clark off the hook,
    so he can continue overcrowding the county jail
    and providing protection for Republican pols
    rather than the president.

  8. Michael says:

    Ever since this story first came out I’ve been wondering about that Journal Sentinal review of thousands of police records. That sounds more like something Clark Kent would do in a comic book, or that newspapers would have done way back in the day when they hand money and could hire employees. I subscribe to the Kindle edition of the JS and they have a long-running problem in which they run words together without spaces between them, and then presumably try to compensate by splitting up single words with random spaces. At this point, the newspaper has declined to the point where no one working there knows how to fix this and they can’t hire anyone who can fix it. These days, putting out correctly spelled words separated by spaces is just beyond what they can aspire to. So, really, what kind of review of the police records did they do? All you have to do is look at all the entire articles they put out that are garbled to the point of literal unreadability (I guess no one looks at what comes out of the computer, or no one has time to fix it when it’s broken) to find the idea of this organization doing a careful review of of tens of thousands of records laughable.

  9. Gleason says:

    Despite any statistical misinterpretation by the Journal Sentinel, it is abundantly clear that the Police Department has a longstanding tradition of under-reporting serious crime. These errors were not random, and had the net effect of substantially reducing the city’s official crime rate.

    It boggles the mind that criticism in this matter has been displaced from the PD’s dishonesty/incompetence (choose one) to the Journal Sentinel. The bottom line is that Chief Flynn’s evidence-based battle against crime stands on seriously flawed data. Thankfully, he has investigated this matter with the MPD’s traditional thoroughness and detected the real culprit: computer software.

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