No matter how clearly wrong it may be shown to be, the Statesman's APD report will remain in the community's mind as 'truth'
"Blacks bear the brunt when police use force," accused the headline on the front page of the Statesman's Jan. 25, 2004, Sunday paper, their most widely read of the week. The story offered that an exhaustive analysis of police department statistics found that "Austin police used force against African-Americans and Hispanics at significantly higher rates than they did against whites."
City leaders were quick to express their dismay at the conclusions reached; city minority community leaders pointed to them as proof of allegations they have been making for years. If accurate, these assertions would be very distressing. As Jordan Smith points out in this issue, however, they are woefully off-base, which is so much more than just distressing.
1) Our city leaders embraced the conclusions before fully examining them. 2) They indicate the Statesman's concentration on a few spectacular major stories a year (both to break major news and to win awards), at the cost of their regular reporting. 3) No matter how clearly wrong and specifically refuted they are shown to be, the assertions will remain in the community's mind as "truth." 4) Finally, though the Statesman's analysis of use of force is way off-target, there is an unhealthy, distrustful relationship between minorities and the police but, tragically, this report will only make that situation worse.
Texas Monthly Publisher Mike Levy, never shy about criticizing the city, has led a citizen-based response to the Statesman, offering literally pounds of reasoned (and a few not so reasoned) responses from concerned citizens throughout the community. In defending the Statesman reports, Editor Rich Oppel said that the numbers don't lie. Actually, numbers rarely speak, but interpretations of numbers can shout from the rooftops. Given a body of statistics far less complex than the ones examined by the Statesman, reputable statisticians can reach contradictory conclusions. Analyzing bodies of data is not a simple task. The reliability and comprehensiveness of the data are the first concern. The questions asked can dictate the answers derived. If, still using their sadly flawed methodology, the Statesman had considered the same data but had looked at it in terms of individuals' economic classes and neighborhoods' economic profiles, would the analysis still have been so racially overdetermined? In deriving conclusions from data, there are many factors to be considered, most having some consequence. Numbers may not lie, but an analysis of them is not necessarily any kind of truth.
This column is not going to repeat Smith's detailed analysis of the Statesman team's failures. In fact, I'm going to keep this column extra short in hopes that you will quickly turn to Smith's piece and read it. City Editor Mike Clark-Madison and Smith do an outstanding job of considering the Statesman's reported findings, so go there now.
In general, I resist criticizing the Statesman in this column and urge the staff to do likewise, for a number of reasons. Obviously, they are a daily and we are a weekly, so our approaches to what we do are as different as, say, those of a neighborhood barbecue joint and a chain homestyle restaurant that serves thousands of meals daily. We have an inherently different conception of our responsibilities to the community. We are also in competition. Thus, cheap shots at the daily from this weekly read like self-congratulatory, shooting-fish-in-a-barrel laziness.
Yet as a reader, I find the daily disappointing. Despite the fact that it boasts a staff of excellent reporters, writers, and editors, its coverage often seems puzzlingly slight. Much is left out, and even what is published is often hard to follow. When Rich Oppel came on as editor, the paper improved dramatically at first, but lately seems to just keep getting worse. Offsetting the weak day-in, day-out coverage are the occasional, labor-intensive, heavily highlighted, usually multipart major exposés. Some of these are very good. Some, like the explosive Barton Springs story, are simply exploitive, with strong reporting twisted by alarmist headlines and undercut by gratuitous conclusions. Regardless, ongoing substantive coverage of the community appears to have taken a backseat to these star turns, designed to ignite community attention and win journalism awards. Is this really the Statesman's mission?
This latest story is an embarrassment. The Statesman has failed the community and its citizens. It has failed the police department. And there is no indication that this will lead to any self-examination or reassessment on the paper's part. Although almost all of their most spectacular assertions in the Barton Springs "exposé" turned out to be groundless, they never really acknowledged it. As in the current story, they took to task City Manager Toby Futrell and city staff (the soil- and water-testing folks). In both cases, at least some of those they've indicted were those working most intensely to solve the real problem. Yet, they never even tried to make it right to Futrell or city staff when their most virulent criticisms about Barton Springs Pool proved groundless.
Sadly, regardless of how legitimate the criticisms, corrections, and concerns, and no matter how faulty and ill-considered the conclusions, the Statesman's report will maintain credibility. This will negatively impact minority communities' perceptions of how they are treated and the police officers' feelings as to how fairly they are appraised. The long-term consequences are bad for our community, exacerbating rather than alleviating the problems and offering no real solutions, even more so because they are so dramatically misdirected. Don't expect the Statesman to address the problems created by the report, nor its weaknesses. They're probably thrilled at how much attention they've attracted, are busy clearing the shelf for those new awards, and seemingly not very concerned with the real-life consequences of their bad analysis and faulty reporting. At least they haven't shown signs of it yet.
If you're not upset yet, read Jordan Smith's article, and then revisit the Statesman's report, knowing the latter will reverberate far longer than the former.
*Editor's Note: Corrected from original print edition.