Maybe we should start calling November “Shabby Journalism Month.” That’s when the FBI typically releases its annual Hate Crime Statistics report, and the resulting headlines this politically combustible year have been predictably inflammatory.
“Hate in America on the rise” blared an editorial headline in the Washington Post, which proceeded to label the latest 4.6 percent increase in the number of reported hate-crime incidents as telling “a sobering story.”
A columnist at the Orlando Sentinel called the report’s results “jarring”—singling out Florida’s “33 percent” increase in incidents as creating risk to Floridians that was “rising exponentially.”
Other foaming-mouth news outlets chimed in with similar sentiments, and the predominant refrain was to lay blame at President Donald Trump’s feet.
But a single statistic hardly tells the whole story; in fact, when isolated in such a manner, the 4.6 percent increase in hate-crime incidents mostly tells a lie. Let’s dig a little deeper into the wealth of statistical information the FBI collects on the subject.
Regarding the “exponentially” rising risk in Florida, the only thing in the Sunshine State that’s ballooning by an exponent is sensationalism where journalism should reign. Last year 110 hate crimes were reported there, which was an increase of 27 hate crimes over 2015 in a state with a population of 21 million.
Proclaiming a statewide 33 percent increase sounds alarmingly exponential. Reporting the factual whole number reveals it to be minutely fractional. Using the FBI’s normal crime rate calculation—offense per 100,000 population—the 2016 hate-crime rate in Florida was 0.52, up from 2015’s 0.39 rate. If you want exponential, you need to look at Florida’s regular crime rate, which was 62,000 times higher than its hate crime rate in 2016.
There’s a fine journalistic line between misleading and misinformation, and the Post and many others have lamentably leaped across it in the wake of the FBI report.
Last year’s 4.6 increase translated to 271 more hate-crime incidents in 2016 (6,121) than 2015 (5,850), but the number of violent hate crimes actually dropped—from 913 to 906.
“Hate-crime murders down by half” could have been a headline, but wasn’t. Nine people died as victims of hate-crime homicides last year, a 50 percent reduction from 2015. (For perspective, 66 Americans were killed by lightning strikes in the past two years. But let’s not digress.)
Several commentators sought to credit the hate crimes “increase” to a spike in white nationalism.
Conveniently, the FBI does an excellent job of categorizing hate-crime offenders, and one of the most basic categories is by race. Of the 5,770 known hate crime offenders in 2016, 46.3 percent were white. But in 2015, that figure was 48.6 percent.
That’s right. The percentage of hate-crime offenders who were white dropped in 2016.
In fact, that number has been falling steadily for years. Fifteen years ago, white offenders were 70 percent of the total. Ten years ago the percentage was 58.6. That’s a strong trend going in the right direction, but it does little to grind the race-baiting axe.
The real headline for this year’s report, however, ought to be the astonishing drop in overall hate-crime incidents in 21st century America.
In 2001, the FBI reported 9,730 hate-crime incidents involving 11,451 offenses. That means 2016’s total number of incidents and offenses is nearly 40 percent lower than 15 years ago–even though the U.S. population has grown by almost 40 million people.
That was news to me, and ought to qualify as newsworthy for any journalist writing about the issue. Instead, the 4.6 percent increase over last year gets headlines, while the 40 percent decrease since 2001 gets ignored.
If nothing else, this year’s hate-crime report ought to be used as a contrast with the much, much, much more serious problem of non-hate violent crime. Because while there were nine fewer hate-crime murders in 2016, there were 1,367 more regular murders. There were also 4,469 more rapes and 38,950 more aggravated assaults than in 2015.
If that’s not “sobering” or “jarring” news, it should be.
Compare that to the decrease in hate-crime aggravated assaults last year, which dropped from 882 to 873 (and which was reported nowhere).
It’s true that there were slightly more (by a couple of hundred) hate-crime incidents of intimidation and vandalism last year than in 2015. Even with that “rise,” the FBI reported nearly 1,500 fewer incidents of intimidation and over 1,100 fewer incidents of vandalism in 2016 than in 2001—and that’s with 3,267 more law enforcement agencies participating in reporting hate crimes than back in 2001.
Unfortunately, it furthers few special-interest agendas to even whisper about a decline in hate crime, much less talk out loud about it.
Plus, with so many pundits still vengefully smarting from the egg on their face over last year’s election, hoping the facts will ever lead on a hyper-political issue like hate crime is simply hoping too much.