It’s Friday and I’m in a stellar mood because the Tennessee Titans drafted Marcus Mariota.
So our beaver pelt trader of the week is, believe it or not, the Tennessee Titans for drafting Mariota. (Also, my twin five year old nephews who turn five today.)
But although we started off the Friday mailbag as we always do today’s mailbag isn’t going to be about the draft. It’s going to be a little bit serious, I’m sorry. Sometimes we have serious mailbags. Lots of you emailed and Tweeted me about about Baltimore this week. Like a lot of you I spent the week watching coverage of the Baltimore riots on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. I generally don’t watch television news very much for reasons that will become evident to you as you read the mailbag today, but I decided to do a bit of a study this week. How were the respective news networks covering this story?
While, not suprisingly, Fox News and MSNBC covered the story from their respective political bents and CNN tried to play it straight, what surprised me was a fundamental lack of context about what we were seeing in Baltimore. Was the Freddie Gray case a relatively isolated example of police violence against a minority or were we seeing a larger trend? I didn’t know.
Maybe I’m rare for this, but my first thought when a tragedy happens isn’t to immediately contextualize it based upon my own political beliefs, it’s to want to know more about how common the story is.
Lots of you have written to me about Baltimore — and before that South Carolina and Ferguson. So I spent this week trying to do some research into police violence. Maybe some of you want context, maybe most of you are already pissed at me for not doing the entire mailbag on Marcus Mariota and the NFL Draft today. All I’d ask is that you take off your political biases and read for the next thousand words.
And, as always, remember you’re about to read the words of a gay Muslim liberal, conservative, sexist homophobic feminist.
Here we go.
I’m not a statistics maven. I’m not a probabilities expert. My math ability is rudimentary at best. There’s a reason I dodged calculus for my entire academic career. But I am a data guy, I like to see the actual numbers — whether it’s things that directly impact my business such as who reads what articles on Outkick, how many of you click through on Twitter or what trends on Facebook — or things that don’t impact me directly at all, the census data released every year that paints a picture of our country, election maps by city, state and county, what word is most searched for in a state. Put simply, I’m a data nerd.
Data matters to me because I care about the context of stories, are stories symptoms of larger trends or aberrations?
Unfortunately we don’t get much context in today’s media.
Instead, one of the things that I’ve learned about TV coverage is that fear often dictates what gets massive media attention. And often our fear is irrational and stoked by TV news. Remember Ebola? When thousands were dying of the flu because they didn’t get flu shots, but everyone was irrationally afraid they’d die of Ebola. What we fear leads television news because like moths drawn unto the flame we are drawn to our fears, we can’t resist them. So what kind of context do we ever get for whether or not we should be afraid of something on television news? Who’s there to make sense of our fears and tell us whether our fear is rational or not?
Because making people less scared doesn’t rate as well. That’s why I’ve argued it’s past time for media outlets to start providing context behind their salacious stories. (It’s not just one side of the aisle playing to our fears either. Both the right, Fox News, and the left, MSNBC, use stories like police shootings to reinforce their political perspectives. CNN does it too, because it rates well.)
Which brings me in a roundabout fashion to the police malfeasance that has been leading the news for the past several months.
This week it’s Baltimore, a few weeks ago it was South Carolina, before that it was Ferguson and beyond. Before we get going any further, let me just say that I’m an extreme liberal when it comes to cases like these — I’m against anyone being shot for any reason. I think American police shoot way too many people of all races for way too many unnecessary reasons. And it doesn’t stop there. I think we Americans in general shoot way too many people for way too many stupid reasons.
So when I see stories like these my first thought is, that’s awful, I feel horrible for the family. My second thought is, how common are incidents like these? So this week I went to look for data. Here’s the data I’ve found on police shootings.
This is from fivethirtyeight.com: “According to the FBI, 28 percent of people arrested in the U.S. in 2013 were African-American. To compare, according to data from a project called Mapping Police Violence, 30 percent of people killed by police in the U.S. from August 2013 through March 2015 were African-American.”
So the number of people being killed by police roughly corresponds to the percentage of people being arrested. That makes sense, right? The police are more likely to shoot people that they’re interacting with in a police capacity. (Now if you want to argue that we arrest way too many people and put way too many people in jail for non-violent offenses in this country, I agree with you. I’ll talk about that later.)
My next question was, who gets shot?
According to the New York Times, police shootings are actually on the decline. That is, every year there are less of them occurring. But of the shootings that do occur three in ten of police shooting victims are black, while whites account for five in ten of the victims. That means given that blacks are only 12% of the American population they are statistically more likely to be victims of police shootings. But the New York Times also points out that blacks are five times as likely to be victims of homicides and five times as likely to kill cops. And, once more, the rate of shootings roughly corresponds to the rates of arrest.
Okay, that helps to paint the picture a bit more. But what about shootings of unarmed black people by police officers? That seems to be the story that captures the most attention, right?
Do you know how many unarmed black people were shot and killed by the police last year according to 538? 117. Do you know how many unarmed people of other races were shot and killed by police last year? 167. (The race couldn’t be determined for 13).
That’s a total of 297 unarmed people shot and killed by police, 39% were black, 61% were not black.
All of those shootings are unfortunate and our rate of police shootings is far higher than in other countries, but in a country with a population of 319 million, being shot and killed by a police officer while you are unarmed is incredibly rare. By my math this means that unarmed people of all races have a .00000093 chance of being shot and killed by the police in any given year.
Of these 297 unarmed people killed by police, let’s assume that a huge percentage of them were murdered by police with no justification whatsoever. Because that’s the biggest fear of all, right? That police are attacking the truly innocent. Let’s make one in four of all the people shot and killed be murdered in cold blood by police. Making a fourth of these shootings murder is probably much higher than the actual percentage, but we’re skewing high here. If we say that one-fourth of these shootings are murders, that would mean 74 entirely innocent unarmed people were murdered by the police this past year. Of that number, based on the data we already have, this would mean that 45 non-black people and 29 black people were murdered without justification by police last year. That’s awful and every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but I wondered how do those numbers compare in the context of the way people died in America last year?
Well, 2,596,996 people died in America last year. And we died in all sorts of ways. Including 35,369 deaths in car accidents, 30,208 in falls, 38,851 by accidental poisoning, 3,391 by drowning, 41,149 by suicide and 16,121 by homicide. Oh, and 2,200 died in childbirth. Meaning, you were nearly ten times as likely to die in childbirth as you were to be an unarmed person killed by a police officer in America last year.
Want an even crazier stat?
Forty-two people were killed by dogs in America last year and 51 people were killed by lightning strikes. That’s 93 people, or twenty percent more people than the 74 innocent and unarmed people of all races killed by police without justification last year. (Remember, we’re skewing high here and assuming that the police murdered a quarter of all the unarmed people they killed last year).
So based on our numbers an unarmed, innocent person of any race is more likely to be killed by dogs or lightning strikes in America than they are by the police.
Will you see these numbers reported anywhere on television? Of course not. Because it’s easier — and produces much higher television ratings — when the media plays to our worst fears. It’s why you hear about every shark attack death and if you ever get killed by an alligator rest assured that you’ll lead the news and make every newspaper in America. If you’re good looking and you’re a woman who dies at a young age in a mysterious fashion, Nancy Grace will find you and put your husband on trial for murder. Convincing tons of women that their husbands are likely to kill them one day too.
The reason is simple: Fear sells.
We all have irrational fears that the media uses to cash checks at our expense. But if you have the ability to see what’s going on, it allows you to be smarter about the way you consume the news. There should be a substantial difference between what we do here at Outkick — where make no mistake about it we’re trying to entertain you every day, not cover major national issues from an impartial perspective — and what the national media covering serious issues does. But in reality, there isn’t. Fear is one of our most visceral and motivating emotions, and the media companies get rich making sure we marinate in our fear all day long. (It’s not just the media either. Politicians often get elected by playing on the same fears. Remember, we went to war in Iraq entirely because everyone was afraid to point out that maybe going to war in Iraq made zero sense. There’s a cottage industry of fear in our country today. How many of you have home security systems? Now how many of you live in homes where the only person to ever set off your home security system is you or a member of your family? The vast majority of you, right? That’s just a simple example of how we make decisions based on fear.)
The reality is Americans of all races have never been safer in our entire country’s history.
Every single day our country gets safer too. Things are getting better in America every day. But would you know that from watching the news or listening to our political leaders?
Of course not.
Look, none of us are immune from irrational fear. Every time I go into the water at the beach I expect to get attacked by a shark. I really do. The entire time I’m in the ocean I’m convincing myself that it’s statistically more likely that I’m going to get struck by lightning on the beach or die in a car accident driving to the beach than ever get eaten by a shark. (Hell, after I saw “Jaws” I was afraid to swim in my neighbor’s pool for fear that I’d be attacked by a shark. That’s how much Steven Spielberg terrified me) It’s simple, we all have irrational fears and we all react to fear, it’s a powerful emotion.
Despite what you may think from watching the news, getting shot by the police is an incredibly rare occurrence — which admittedly, could and should be even rarer. But fearing the police killing you while you’re unarmed because of your race isn’t remotely logical or rooted in real-life data. Teaching your kids a fear of the police is counterproductive, short-sighted and wholly without merit when you look at the statistical data. An unarmed person of any race on the street at night is in more danger from dogs and lightning strikes than the police. The police save infinitely more lives — minority and otherwise — than they ever take.
Now, that doesn’t mean that stories like these can’t launch important discussions. For instance, how about a national debate across party lines that examines our failed war on drugs? Why do we imprison so many people for nonviolent offenses? Why are are our police charged with spending so much of their time policing non-violent crimes? Why do these police policies engender so much distrust and discord in the communities they’re charged with protecting? Those are fair and legitimate questions. But we don’t ask them for very long. We focus on the fear that isn’t justified and then when a similar story happens again — and in our example it could happen up to thirty times a year, or just over twice a month — we dive back into the same moral quagmire and play out the same roles over and over again. If you doubt that this isn’t agenda driven, answer a question for me — if unarmed whites are more likely to be killed by police than unarmed blacks why don’t we ever hear about this in the news? The answer’s simple, because it doesn’t rate as well.
If the media needs a suggestion for the next fear to focus on, I’ve got one — dog attack deaths. There’s at least one a month.
My policy on all of this is clear, I’d legalize and tax just about everything but the most addictive drugs out there. I wouldn’t stop there either, I’d legalize gambling and prostitution. I’d cut down the criminal code and focus on issues that actually threaten public safety and lives. I’d use data instead of fear to make intelligent decisions about how we use the police in our modern society. These are legitimate points of discussion and integral issues that go to the very foundation of our democracy. But they’re complicated and they aren’t scary and they don’t give everyone a license to get outraged and create artificial hero and villain dynamics. They don’t scare people to make money off their fear.
Which is a shame.
Because if they did our country would be a lot better off.
Alright, I’m off my soapbox. I don’t do it all the time, but every now and then I feel the need to address my fellow radical moderates.
Have good weekends.
And if you remember nothing else, remember this — America has never been a better or safer place to live. Ever.