Erik Lukens
The Bulletin

Is Eugene one of the nation’s hate-crime capitals?

Don’t count on it. But that’s one message contained in a shoddy report sent to newsrooms around the country and, unfortunately, latched onto by credulous reporters at even respectable organizations.

Thus did The Seattle Times write on Tuesday that Eugene is among the five cities with the steepest increases in reported hate crimes from 2013 to 2017, the others being Phoenix, Seattle, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Seattle’s presence on this list explains the Times’ interest, as does the report’s finding that Washington’s spike in reported hate crimes over the same period was steeper than those in all but a handful of states.

Similar stories on other news sites reported their respective states’ and cities’ rankings on the list. Even The Oregonian got into the act Friday. In doing so, news organizations have implicitly encouraged readers to wring their hands and — who knows? — maybe even buy a home-security system. The report, you see, was conducted by an organization called SafeHome.org that researches home-security systems and has a financial interest in drawing users to its website.

The problem isn’t that the report’s numbers, which come from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, are inaccurate. They’re not. The problem, rather, is that the numbers are used in a way the FBI explicitly discourages. And for good reason.

It takes real effort to visit the FBI’s hate-crime statistics page and miss a prominent three-word warning: “Caution Against Ranking.” Turning UCR hate-crime statistics into rankings has “often created misleading perceptions which adversely affect geographic entities and their residents,” the FBI explains. Among the factors that vary among states and cities are “administrative and investigative emphasis on law enforcement,” “citizens’ attitudes toward crime” and “crime reporting practices of the citizenry.”

Put simply, because reporting and other factors vary dramatically, creating hate-crime rankings of cities and states is highly misleading. Yet that’s exactly what SafeHome.org did.

Eugene does report a large number of hate crimes to the FBI. It does so, in large part, because the city prioritizes the collection and reporting of such information. To this end, Eugene conducts extensive outreach. It has even expanded what it considers a hate crime. As explained in the city’s 2018 Hate and Bias Report, in addition to “statutory reporting of state and federally classified hate crimes, the Eugene Police Department (EPD) tracks bias-related crimes motivated by perceived or actual age, economic status, social status, citizenship, martial status, or political affiliation or beliefs, and membership or activity in or on behalf of a labor organization or against a labor organization.”

A city that focuses with such intensity upon hate crimes inevitably will report a larger number than cities that focus less intensely upon the problem.

Consider some numbers. Eugene, population 168,310, reported 72 hate crimes in 2017 while Salem, population 169,565, reported five. The state’s largest city, Portland, population 649,408, reported only 18.

Many jurisdictions in Oregon, meanwhile, reported no hate crimes, according to the FBI, including Medford, Bend, Redmond and Prineville.

The number of hate crimes Eugene reported exceeds those reported by such huge Texas cities as Dallas (14) and Houston (eight) and many entire states, including Alabama (nine), Georgia (27), Idaho (53), Indiana (55), Nevada (five) and Wisconsin (46).

Categorizing hate crimes isn’t easy, the FBI warns in its data collection users manual, “due to the difficulty of ascertaining the offender’s subjective motivation.” Even so, the numbers indicate some jurisdictions are far more determined to collect and report information than others. Unless, that is, you believe that Eugene really did experience nine times as many hate crimes in 2017 as Houston, a city with nearly 14 times as many people.

Those who wrote the SafeHome.org report do, at least, have the good sense to seem sheepish about what they’ve done. The report acknowledges that “the scope and shape of bias-motivated crimes … are foggy at best,” in part because “many law enforcement agencies do not report to federal authorities details on hate crimes reported to police.”

No sooner does the report acknowledge the problems with the underlying data, however, than it commits the very sin the FBI, citing problematic data, warns against: It produces rankings and singles out cities like Eugene, which thus look terrible in large part because they’re trying so hard to do the right thing.

Many reporters, meanwhile, are made aware of work like SafeHome.org’s by PR agencies that send highlight-laden emails tailored to their news organizations’ coverage areas. The Bulletin received an email touting the SafeHome.org report from RN Public Relations Group, a New York firm that began its pitch by practically shouting, “A new study shows Oregon ranks No. 6 seeing the biggest rise in hate crimes at 125% between 2013-2017.” Naturally, it included the top-five list featuring Eugene.

It’s a game of journalistic telephone, with dire warnings about data limitations weakening and ultimately disappearing during the trip from FBI to PR firm. Somebody, it seems, assumes reporters won’t take the trouble to trace the data to its source or even to question the motivations of the company that compiled the report. That somebody inevitably is right some of the time. And as a result, news organizations credulously pass along highly misleading information, and well-intended cities like Eugene suffer unearned embarrassment.

Criticize savvy businesses like SafeHome.org and their PR-firm hucksters if you’d like. But the real problem is those of us in the news business who lend their work credibility and, in doing so, erode our own.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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