The Gang that Couldn’t Count Straight

The Gang that Couldn’t Count Straight: Before I launch into the following rant, please, I’m NOT saying that youth crime in Nashville isn’t a problem (sorry for the double negative). My point in the following is to show how the Tennessean is mis-applying statistics today — and in the headline of a front page story, is using what can only be described as a “made-up” statistic — to portray a common reality of any urban area as an epidemic sweeping the city. Again, let me go on record and say, any youth crime is bad and I know there is a kernel of truth in these stories, however, that truth has been corrupted in the quest for a big story.

First, the front-page headline is “Nashville gang life draws thousands” and begins this way:

“Nashville has several thousand members in nine street gangs that go by names such as the Bloods, Crips, Asian Pride, Brown Pride and MS-13. Some deal drugs and get in fights with each other. All throw gang signs. And some of them go home to single mothers in the suburbs.”

Much deeper into the story we are provided the methodology behind the headline and statistics — or, as I say on this weblog, we learn why reporters should never be trusted with statistics:

Every time a Metro police officer meets someone they can confirm to be a gang member, that person’s basic information is entered into a gang member registry. Police have confirmed that at least 1,500 active gang members live in Metro, but the real number is estimated to be at least twice that. For every hard-core gang member, Sgt. Gary Kemper of the gang unit says, you have four or five associate members that probably haven’t been caught yet.

So, let’s apply some common sense to those numbers:

1. There are nine gangs and 1,500 active gang members confirmed. So, if we accept that confirmed number, we must extrapolate that each gang has an average of 166 members confirmed.

2. While not confirmed, the “real number is estimated” to be “at least twice” 1,500, which I assume means 3,000. From that, we can extrapolate that each gang has an average of 333 “hard core” members.

3. Now in addition to those “hard core members,” each gang as “four or five” associate members that haven’t been caught yet. So, here we go: 3,000 hard core members X 5 members that probably haven’t been caught yet = 15,000 gang members.

4. So, if we are to believe the statistics of this story, each of the nine gangs in Nashville has an average of 1,666 members and associates.

5. The Tennessean reporter and editors apparently don’t think that statistics implying 1,666 members per gang seems, hmmm, a bit inflated, thus, the “thousands” number.

So what is my point? I guess my point could be that by using the same statistics, the Tennessean could have as easily run a story on the front of the business section marveling at the remarkable administrative and management skills being developed by young people who are running organizations with 1,666 members and associates. But my real point is this: Never trust reporters (or bloggers, for that matter) with statistics. And if you’re a writer or editor, don’t try to make numbers support a story you want to tell. Let the numbers tell their own story. Likely, the true gang numbers in Nashville won’t tell the story the Tennessean editors are trying to portray. That’s unfortunate as I’m sure there is a real story lost in their fuzzy math.

(Context: The whole reporter math thing is a continuing pet peeve vented on this blog.)

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4 thoughts on “The Gang that Couldn’t Count Straight

  1. So, let’s see.

    The story says these gang members are primarily teenagers.

    There are 74,000 students in Metro public schools. I’m going to assume there are few gang members in grades K-8. I’m leaving the small pre-K numbers out of my equation.

    I get 22,800 students in grades 9-12, roughly, just by division. So, if the 15,000 is right, that means that 66% of students in Metro schools are gang members??? Haahaha. Well, it does say that some Hispanic gangs pull from an older population. We don’t know how to account for that.

    I’ll use the 3000 number: 13% of students in Metro high schools are gang members??? That’s just as ludicrous!!!

    Maybe some of these alleged gang members are among our dropout population. Hmmm.

  2. I laughed out loud when I got to the line created to induce a gasp, “All throw gang signs.” I have to wonder how many of those 1,500 confirmed gang members are really active, as in not years-old confirmations or confirmations of gang members currently incarcerated.

  3. Rex, your comment about spinning this into a positive business story is truly witty, and also smacks of that chapter in Freakonomics on why drug dealers live with their mothers. And also hold jobs on the side.

    Somehow Laura, I don’t see a lot of hard-core gang members interrupting their day with school.

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