All the data you can eat
Umbilical Ruminations

Criminal reporting when counting crime

Adam Oxford
Adam Oxford

It’s crime stats week in South Africa, and the headlines here have been full of the usual hair-pulling cries of “something must be done” as the numbers of reported cases for murders, sexual offenses and common assault went up.

Something does indeed have to be done – not just about the crime stats but the way they are reported in the South African media.

It’s an annual event event which shows just how much work needs to be done to help newsrooms with numbers.

We’re not going to name and shame, but the main bugbear is that increases in raw numbers of reported crimes are described as “rates”, with no consideration for – say – general population increases or numbers of crime relative to the population in an area.

Hey SA journos – if the number of reported crimes goes up by 3%, and the population increases by 2% a year, the crime rate for that type of crime has not risen by 3%. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

More importantly, though, not looking careful at these numbers means missing nuance. The sharp rise in the number of sexual assaults reported could actually be a good thing. The only thing we really know – from a numbers point of view – about these crimes in South Africa are that they are massively under-reported. The hope would be that thanks to raised awareness through #MeToo and other, local campaigns, more women are feeling comfortable coming forward and accusing their attackers.

That’s the hope. Because as Jason so ably demonstrates, there’s a lot about the issue that looks hopeless right now.

Adam Oxford
  • Adam Oxford is a freelance journalist, media consultant and civic tech enthusiast. He also works closely with startups developing solutions to access to justice problems.

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