The biggest story of the week in Alaska?
Well, you’ve already seen the headline and the photo above so you know, although the moose in the picture topping the story posted by WLUK in Green Bay, Wisc. looked nothing like the one that walked into and out of a building on the campus of Alaska Regional Hospital.
But then, bull moose with antlers are undeniably more attractive than cow moose lacking head-gear. So why not top the story with bull?
The interesting thing here is not the moose anyway.
Leave the doors of a building anywhere open and there’s no telling what might wander in: a bear in a California Highway Patrol office in Truckee; a deer in a hospital emergency room in New York; a coyote in a surgeon’s office building in South Carolina; a possum in a home in North Carolina; an elk in an office building in Dresden, albeit a German elk which is an American moose; an alligator in a house in Louisiana; a Canada goose in who-knows where.
And then, of course, there is the animal that didn’t get inside: “Heroic raccoon scales high-rise building in 3 days!” That story out of Minnesota might have attracted even more attention than the wanderings of an Anchorage moose, although the latter is now everywhere.
A Google search for “Anchorage moose in hospital” today produced, according to Google, “about 505,000 results.” There is no indication whether Google was rounding up or rounding down, but that’s a big number either way.
Why were so many websites pushing this story? One word:
Old media, new media, all media is today in a struggle for attention. They want your eyeballs on their websites.
As a result, the novel, or sometimes the provocative, has become the journalistic currency of the day from the Bangor Daily News in Maine to KUSI News in San Diego, from KOMO News in Seattle to the Tampa Bay Times in Florida, and everywhere in between those four corners of the Lower 48 states.
A moose in a building might have some pertinence to the readers of a local websitein New England, where moose are common, but the news value of the same moose to residents of San Diego, Seattle and Tampa Bay is no more than that of a kangaroo bounding through a house in Australia.
The only reason for the story to appear in those markets is to attract attention.
So be it. And were this pursuit of eyeballs limited to stray animals, it would be one thing. But it’s not so limited.
“Big stories,” however those come to be defined, have a bad habit of exploding across the country even if they are wholly irrelevant at the local level and even if they are more speculation than fact.
In the process, they often distort reality – badly distort reality.
Only a little over a week ago, this country – already deeply troubled by issues of race – was shaken by the drive-by shooting of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes, an African-American child, in Houston by a gunman described as a thin, white man with blue eyes.
The description would turn out to be way off, but not before the story went both national and international.
“The case has gained prominence across the US, and celebrities have joined the appeal to find Jazmine’s killer using the hashtag #JusticeForJazmine….Campaigners fear the shooting, on an African-American family by a white male, may have been a hate crime.”
Writer and civil rights activist Shaun King, a columnist for The Intercept and a former writer for Daily Kos, went so far as to finger petty criminal Robert Cantrell, a white man who resembled a police sketch of a possible shooter, as a murder suspect in the case.
The Dec. 30 homicide got big play because of the race angle. Almost no attention was paid to the two dead and 29 black Americans wounded over the course of that same New Year’s weekend in the 93 percent, African American, South Side of Chicago.
The latter is not novel like a white man alleged shooting a black child. Black-on-black homicide on the South Side – unlike a moose in the hospital – is tragically common.
“Shootings have become so normalized that they rarely make the front page of the local papers, let alone the national news,” Daniel Brown, a former South Side crime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote in a 2017 story for Business Insider.
“The causes of violence were readily on display at almost every (crime) scene,” he added. “Most shootings in Chicago happen in about 10 of the city’s 77 neighborhoods, on the South Side and the West Side. Poverty, racism, lack of opportunities, and more were apparent at every scene….
“When I’d drive from the Sun-Times office downtown to the crime scenes, it was hard to miss the contrasts. The skyscrapers, plush condos, and designer stores gave way to run-down buildings, boarded-up schools and storefronts, and empty lots.
“At one crime scene, where a 28-year-old had been shot dead on a sidewalk, a young boy walked up and down the sidewalk along the police tape. No older than seven, he would stop and stare at the body every so often. As far as I could tell, it seemed normal to him.”
What applies to the seven-year-old applies to most of the country. Poor black people killing poor black people on Chicago’s South Side has somehow to come to be normal, but a blue-eyed, white, bogeyman shooting a young black girl…”
This is the way journalism magnifies certain elements of the news these days.
And nowhere do these magnifications of exceptions that trump the norm do more to frighten Americans and corrupt the political process than in the area of crime.
Most Americans today seem unaware of what the left-leaning Pew Research Center reported in its Fact Tank just days ago:
“Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century. The two most commonly cited sources of crime statistics in the U.S. both show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 1990s. One is an annual report by the FBI of serious crimes reported to police in approximately 18,000 jurisdictions around the country. The other is an annual survey of more than 90,000 households conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which asks Americans ages 12 and older whether they were victims of crime, regardless of whether they reported those crimes to the police.
“Using the FBI numbers, the violent crime rate fell 49 percent between 1993 and 2017. Using the BJS data, the rate fell 74 percent during that span.”
That observation was number one on Pew’s list of “five facts about crime in the United States.”
Number two was that property crime is down significantly over the long-term, too. More interesting though, and directly related to the discussion here, was number three:
“Public perceptions about crime in the U.S. often don’t align with the data. Opinion surveys regularly find that Americans believe crime is up nationally, even when the data show it is down.”
Why do beliefs run opposite the data?
It’s hard to avoid any other conclusion than that people are influenced by an American media heavy on crime coverage (it’s cheap and easy) and inclined to treat every major crime as if it were local. Most people certainly understand the reality of Pew’s fourth observation that “there are large geographic variations in crime rates.”
You’re not going to find many white folk undertaking a driving tour of Chicago’s South Side. But the same people don’t recognize geographic variations on a broader scale. When the media reports a Florida shooting at a school in a middle-class neighborhood, residents of Seattle or Chicago or Boston middle-class neighborhoods perceive the attack as a threat at their school even if it isn’t.
They really could care less where the crime problem actually lives. They just want to make sure crime never touches them or their children. The economic problems of the country’s inner cities aren’t their problem.
They’d rather just secure the neighborhood. Some would do that by further restricting gun ownership, thinking that will increase security. Others, thinking much the same, want to arm everyone.
Unfortunately, the data on the firearm deaths leads to only one reasonable conclusion: Neither option makes a difference.
But you’re unlikely to read that story. The media these days is much more into attention than into substance. Cities banning guns attract eyeballs. So, too, cities requiring gun ownership, and there are such communities.
Just the numbers
Rare, extremely rare, are the reporters focused on the numbers, but there are a few.
“There is no clear correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate,” writes number-cruncher BJ Campbell at Handwaving Freakoutery. “Not within the USA. Not regionally. Not internationally. Not among peaceful societies. Not among violent ones. Gun ownership doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t make us less safe. A bivariate correlation simply isn’t there. It is blatantly not-there. It is so tremendously not-there that the ‘not-there-ness’ of it alone should be a huge news story.”
“Everybody’s Lying About the Link Between Gun Ownership and Homicide” is the headline on his analysis at Medium, and anyone interested in the subject of gun control – pro-gun, anti-gun or undecided – should read it.
It’s a good lesson in statistical analysis, but Campbell is nice enough to also summarize the statistics in a few words.
“Gun Murder Rate is not correlated with firearm ownership rate in the United States, on a state by state basis,” he writes. “Firearm Homicide Rate is not correlated with guns per capita globally. It’s not correlated with guns per capita among peaceful countries, nor among violent countries, nor among European countries. So what in the heck is going on in the media, where we are constantly berated with signaling indicating that ‘more guns = more murder?'”
A big part of the answer to that question is, of course, suicide. About two out of three gun deaths in the U.S. are the result of suicide, but the numbers for suicide and homicide are regularly lumped together.
“That is not to belittle the suicide problem,” Campbell cautioned. “Suicide is twice the problem that homicide is, statistically speaking, but you’re not going to fix that by any of the ‘common sense measures’ the left floats, such as magazine size restrictions. (pro tip: you only need a mag of “1” to shoot yourself).”
Campbell also takes to task a highly referenced study from the American Journal of Public Health that suggests a correlation between gun numbers and gun deaths; ie. more guns equal more deaths.
The conclusion seems logical enough, but Campbell focuses on the big data points the study ignored.
“The two primary correlations they found were not guns, they were income inequality and black population ratio,” he writes, which takes one back to the boots-on-the-ground reporting of Brown, the former Chicago Sun-Times reporter, who quit his job because he couldn’t deal with daily visits to crime scenes.
Sadly, tragically, horribly, Campbell notes a “black population was six times more predictive than gun ownership was, in the AJPH model” on firearms deaths.
It’s not because of skin color. It’s because of economics and sociology.
Which brings this back to poor Jazmine Barnes, an innocent victim of inner-city chaos. Two men have now been arrested in connection with her shooting death. Both are black.
The Houston Chronicle reported 24-year-old Larry Woodruffe, the alleged shooter, was “a documented member of the street gang the Five Deuce Hoover Crips,” on the prowl with driver Eric Black Jr., 20, on the day of the shooting.
“Both Jazmine…and her mother were hit by gunfire in what prosecutors say was an unprovoked shooting in which at least eight shots were fired,” the newspaper said. “Woodruffe and Black mistook the car driven by Jazmine’s mother for a vehicle with a group of people they had been in an altercation with hours earlier.”
Jazmine was collateral damage in the battles that plague some of this country’s inner city neighborhoods. And why do these battles rage? Why do young people join gangs?
“We have groups that are really marginalised, cut off from mainstream society, dropouts with no work,” said sociologist Sven-Åke Lindgren. He wasn’t talking about the U.S., however. Lindgren, a professor of sociology at Gothenburg University in Sweden, was talking to The Guardian about gang-related shootings in that country in 2015.
“‘This is a ghetto,'” a Saudi woman named Nora, 25, told Gaurdian reporter David Crouch at the scene of a Swedish gang shooting that left two men dead. “There is racism and young people can’t get jobs; they feel they have no future in Swedish society.
“The gangs make boys feel like family, they look after them.”
The gangs offer economic and physical survival – the nitty-gritty of so many societal problems in so many poverty-stricken areas around the globe including some in Alaska. But to a media tied up in its own economic struggle, something else matters a whole lot more than this story:
And it’s a lot easier to attract attention to a story about a moose wandering into a hospital than to attract attention to a substantive story about anything.
Getting anyone to read to the end of a story like this one isn’t as easy as teasing them into watching a video of a moose wandering around in an office building. Not to mention this takes a lot more time to produce.
The market economics of the time clearly seem to say, “Run with the moose!” Whether journalism powered in signficant part by a diet of fluff can survive over the long term only time will tell.