Monday, 6 June 2011

Crime statistics? Now why would journalists understand those?

[trigger warning]

So the BBC has an article on the number of women who have been convicted for domestic violence. It's as bad as you'd expect a BBC article to be.

It notes a rise in convictions of women for domestic violence between 2005 and 2010 from 1,500 to 4,000.

The article then goes on for several paragraphs speculating about why this might be, cultures of violence in women, etc.

In the final paragraph, after most readers will have got bored and wandered off, they note that in the same time period convictions of men committing domestic violence rose from 28,000 to 55,000 - not quite as large a proportionate rise, but still big.

Further penalty points, too, for their heteronormative assumption that all domestic violence is committed against someone of the 'opposite' gender to the attacker.

Domestic violence reduction is actually a relative success for our justice system and government - with the rates of assault significantly falling, and the rate of convictions significantly increasing. It remains a serious problem - around 300,000 incidents a year - but this is a third of what it was 15 years ago, and a vastly-increased proportion (now around 1 in 6) of those perpetrators are convicted (even if not all of them get appropriate sentences).

It's still really bad and there's much still to do - but there has been significant progress made. Not that you'd know that from this article.

Lots of quotes from un-named "some experts", too - presumably because no real expert would actually put their name to such uninformed speculation.

Here's the complaint that I sent them.

Regarding your article "Women's convictions for domestic violence 'double'", I found it to be poorly researched and sensationalist, leaving a key piece of context for the final paragraph, and ignoring obvious research that could easily answer some of the "experts say this" / "other experts say that" pseudo-debate in the article. By doing so, it gives a completely misleading impression, both about the extent of domestic violence generally, and the number of women committing it.

Firstly, convictions are not at a measure of the prevalence of crime. A doubling of convictions could mean twice as many crimes were being committed, or it could mean that the number of crimes was constant but the reporting rate had doubled, or it could mean that the reporting rate was constant but improvements in police and CPS procedure meant that the chances of a conviction had doubled. Or - more likely - some combination of the three.

Fortunately, the British Crime Survey is a long-standing statistical measure of crime, including domestic violence, and - together with other CPS and Police/Home Office statistics - can be used to answer this. A quick summary of the figures can easily be found by searching for "BCS Domestic Violence" - for instance

It shows that - far from increasing, the rates of domestic violence against both men and women have been generally decreasing. The proportion of victims who were male is also roughly the same as it has been over the last decade.

Secondly, the key piece of context - that there had also been a massive increase in convictions for domestic violence in general and by men specifically - is left for the last paragraph. This is a key piece of context, which strongly suggests that much of the increase is due to improvements in prosecution and investigation - contrary to the suggestions in the early paragraphs - and yet it is buried at the bottom of the page where relatively few readers will see it.

This news of a massive increase in convictions for men is not accompanied by "some experts" wondering if it is part of a "growing culture of violence" among men - despite the 2005 number for men being seven times the 2010 number for women.

Thirdly, the article assumes throughout that all male victims of domestic violence were attacked by women, and vice versa. This is obviously not the case, but the article implies it anyway.

Please let me know what steps will be taken to ensure that such basic mistakes in reporting on crime statistics do not recur in future.