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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Guardian's Tim Redmond Didn't Let the Facts Get In the Way of His Story

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2009 at 1:50 PM

I'm not sure how I wound up on the listserv of the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Web news (I certainly didn't sign up), but it comes every day  -- and occasionally I read it. Last week, I was particularly drawn to a news item by editor Tim Redmond entitled, Why Homicides Are Down (Hint: It's Not All The Police).

Redmond begins his editorial item claiming to have been fascinated by the idea that homicide numbers in San Francisco have decreased while what he calls "near-fatal" shootings have remained the same. "While the mayor trumpets the falling murder rate, the number of people shot in the city isn't dropping at all," he writes.  (Actually, that's not true, which I'll explain later).  

He goes on to say he agrees with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who is quoted in a recent San Francisco Examiner story pointing to San Francisco General Hospital, the city's only trauma center, as "the unsung hero" in regards to the falling murder rate.

Finally, Redmond worries that the looming budget cuts could affect the trauma center. "At that point, will the homicide rate go up?" he wonders.

It's hard to know where to start on this lazy, throw-away piece of non-journalism, but here are the main issues I have with it:

1) Some of the facts are flat-out wrong

2) Redmond misrepresents Mirkarimi's position by omitting most of what he told the Examiner

3) Redmond did no reporting, and has no facts to support his conclusions

So, I made a phone call and requested some data from SF General (this is not to imply I am some kind of hero -- this is the job of a journalist). I wanted to know how many patients the trauma center had treated with gunshot wounds: And it turns out, that from January to May of 2009, General admitted just 47 people who had been assaulted with guns. During the same period in 2008, the hospital admitted nearly twice as many -- 82 people. In 2007, General admitted 80 people.

Keep in mind that the number of people admitted is not the same as the number of people who showed up at the trauma center with gunshot wounds. Many of the wounded acutally didn't have "near-fatal" injuries (as Redmond would have us believe), so they were stiched up and promptly released. Still, the numbers show that far fewer people got shot -- fatally or otherwise -- in the city this year as compared to the years before.

In 2009, between January and May, a total of 95 people with any kind of gunshot wound showed up at SF General (a small number of those involved shootings by law enforcement, by accident, or by suicide attempt). In 2008, 129 people showed up. In 2007, it was 137.

I'm not saying that SF General isn't doing a great job. It's widely touted as a great trauma center, and I have no information with which to belie that claim. But to figure out how many lives might have been lost this year and were instead "saved" by hospital efforts -- and whether there was an improvement over last year that significantly affected the homicide numbers -- would take quite a while. (If Redmond really wants to make his case, though, I suggest he go for it).

When I told Redmond about the data I obtained from SF General, he softened his position and argued that the hospital decreases the number of homicides every year. "Fine, so there's fewer shootings," he said. "My larger political point is that reducing the homicide rate is not just a factor of police work...SF General has contributed to a drop over the last 10 or 15 years." Ok, Redmond. But that's not what you wrote.

The second major problem with Redmond's item is the out-of-context quoting of Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. When interviewed by the Examiner, Mirkarimi listed three possibilities for why non-fatal gunshot assaults remained constant while homicide numbers dropped. Mirkarimi said maybe gang violence -- often marked by revenge killings -- was down. Or maybe perpetrators have had bad aim, he said. Finally, he mentioned the hospital as an "unsung hero."  

Redmond ignored the big picture and suggested that Mirkarimi believed homicide numbers were down because of the hospital. "I'm with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi," he wrote. When I asked Redmond why he ignored the rest of Mirkarimi's statement, he dismissed the "bad aim" explanation as a joke (fair enough), but didn't address the possible decrease in gang violence. Instead, he veered into a discussion about how he hoped this story wouldn't make a big deal out of nothing.

"That's what I get for doing a four-paragraph blog post on a very complicated subject," he said.   

Finally, Redmond admitted he had not investigated the budget in regards to any trauma center cuts. Nonetheless, he said, he worries that should those cuts occur, the homicide rate might increase. Then, for much of the remainder of the conversation, he pointed to the good work of the hospital and basically any explanation other than police work for why homicides have decreased.

"There are a million factors in homicides," Redmond said, then proposed someone perform a complex linear regression of all the potential homicide factors in decreased homicides to see which were the most influential. Cops would likley not come out as major factor, he suspected. 

Why? "I suspect it because of everything I've seen in 25 years as a political reporter in San Francisco," he said. Uh, huh. Apparently, Redmond believes that once a journalist has been around long enough, he no longer need facts to make an argument.

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Ashley Harrell


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