What’s In a Headline

MURDER HEADLINES.

“Murders Spiked in 2020 in Cities Across the United States.” Thus read yesterday’s headline from a news source I look at daily. Often, I read no more than the headline believing it gives me the gist of the news. This time I read the story and realized that the headline could have been written in ways that might have put a different spin on the recently released FBI crime statistics. For example, the headline might also have said, “Major Crimes Fall in 2020.” While the original headline is true, so is the alternative, for the story reported, “Major crimes overall dropped about 5 percent.” But surely while both may be accurate, they likely give differing impressions of crime in the country.

          While we are much more likely to be a victim of a crime other than homicide, murders grab our attention and are likely to make it into the headlines. Nevertheless, variations on the headline were possible. Indeed, the same news source a week earlier reported on preliminary FBI data and had a story similar to the one from yesterday. Its headline: “Murder Rose by Almost 30% in 2020. It’s Rising at a Slower Rate in 2021.” Does this headline from a week ago give you a different impression from the one yesterday? The earlier one also appears to be true. This summer’s spike in homicides was lower than that from the summer of 2020. (Murders rise in the summer each year.) The story reported: “The higher murder rate has continued into 2021, although the pace has slowed as the year progressed.” The earlier headline seems to be delivering some good, or at least mitigating, news. Of course, they could have chosen a different headline, still accurate but more dire: “Murder Rose by Almost 30% in 2020 and Continues to Climb.”

          The headline yesterday stressed cities, but there may have been a different reaction had the headline read: “Murder Rate Jumped in 2020. Widespread Increase Was Not Limited to Major Cities.” This also would have been accurate. Although the story said that some cities had had a record number of murders, it also reported that “killings were more widespread, occurring in all regions of the United States and not limited to major cities.” Another accurate headline: “Murder Rate Spiked in 2020 but Major Cities Account for Smaller Share of Murders in U.S.” The story gave this striking statistic: “In 1990, New York City and Los Angeles accounted for 13.8 percent of the country’s homicides, compared with 3.8 percent in 2020.” The story’s actual headline made this fact a surprise. Would alternative headlines have given a different impression of murders in large cities?

          A different headline might have assuaged fear: “Murders Increased in 2020. Still Well Below Historical Highs.” The article stated that some cities had hit record highs, but the national rates are “still well below the record set during the violence of the early 1990s” remaining about one-third lower than the earlier highs. Three decades ago there were nearly ten murders for every 100,000 people while last year it was slightly over six per100,000. Perhaps the headline might have said, “Lower Murder Rates from Previous Highs Made Big Cities Safer.” The story reported that while 2020 murders in New York City increased to 500 from 319 the previous year, they were twenty-two percent of what they were in 1990 when 2,200 were recorded. Murders in Los Angeles increased from 258 in 2019 to 351 last year but were at their highest—1010—in 1980. And even though Chicago had an increase last year to 771, that was below the 939 murders in 1992.

          Instead of stressing cities in the headline, the editors could have focused on a different part of the data: “Murder Rate Jumped in 2020 Led by Increased Firearm Use.” This, too, would have been accurate as the story reported that 77% of the murders were by firearms which was up from 67% a decade ago.

          The headline might have been more political by saying: “Murder Rate Soared under Trump.” The earlier article contained a graph of the murder rates from the 1960s. The story could have stressed that the rates were highest in the 1970s when Republicans Nixon and Ford were President, dropped a bit, but spiked again under Republicans Reagan and Bush the Elder. The article could also have said murder rates plummeted in the 1990s under Democratic President Clinton, leveled off under W, and then modestly declined when Obama was in office.

          But the most striking headline might have been: “For 32nd Straight Year, Louisiana Had Highest Murder Rate in 2020.”