Covering NCRB data: how newspapers fared

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Media Monitoring | 06/12/2017
As statistics grow more important in public debates, here is an analysis of how the media covered – or muddled - the latest crime figures
VIKAS KUMAR dissects the reporting and pinpoints statistical gaffes

 Gory pictures carried by  TOIOutlookDeccan Chronicle and  India Today in their crime data coverage.

 

The 64th edition of “Crime in India” for the year 2016, a report on all the FIRs registered under the Indian Penal Code and Special & Local Laws prepared by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), was released by the Union Minister for Home Affairs on November 30, 2017. The 692-page report attracted enormous attention in the media and more than a hundred news items appeared in major national and regional dailies and magazines over the next four days.

News reports based on inputs from news agencies started appearing soon after the report’s release. None of the newspapers reflected on the quality of the data before commenting on the trends and patterns, which is surprising because in the past some of them had raised questions in this regard (see, for instance, NCRB data: Handle with care in The Hindu, NCRB data: The odd case of crime in Uttar Pradesh, IPC rate very low, overall very high in The Indian Express, and Why India has a ‘low’ crime rate in The Indian Express).The issue of data quality is particularly important because the NCRB data are often used as political weapons.

Timeliness - data deliveries should adhere to schedules and data should be available to users without unwarranted delay - is one of the key indicators of data quality. With the increasing use of information technologies, it is expected that data would be available with shorter lags. The final version of the 2016 report was ready by October 30 (and was released on November 30), unlike in the preceding five years when reports were ready latest by the end of July.

The delay might have resulted partly because of the significant revision in the format of the report this year. Only The News Minute (“UP worst state for Dalits with 10k atrocity cases, AP has most cases in south India”) noted that the NCRB report was “released months after it usually is this year.” However, it did not explore or reflect upon the factors behind the delay.

In light of the growing importance of statistics in public debates, this article uses the coverage of the latest NCRB report to explore the treatment of statistics in the news media. The discussion is organised around the following themes: interpreting numbers, representing numbers through words and images, and situating numbers in their context. In the following discussion, all emphases (bold typeface) have been added by the author.

 

Misreading the numbers

 

A few news items completely misunderstood the NCRB statistics. Dainik Jagran (2.2 fisad ki dar se cyber crime mein izafa, Growth in cyber crimes at the rate of 2.2 per cent) reported that cybercrime grew in Delhi at the rate of 2.2 per cent compared to 23.5 per cent in Mumbai. Actually, the rate of cybercrime dropped in Delhi and grew marginally in Mumbai. What Dainik Jagran interpreted as growth rates were shares of Delhi and Mumbai in cybercrimes committed in 19 metropolitan cities (see Table 9B.1 of the NCRB report).

In several news items, the description switched from absolute figures to shares or rates (crime per lakh population), making comparisons difficult. For instance, a news item in The Indian Express(NCRB data: Delhi, UP top crime list) noted : “While Uttar Pradesh reported 4,889 murder cases, the national capital reported nearly 40 per cent of rape cases registered among 19 major cities.” In some cases such a switch is innocuous, while in others it could affect inferences.

"In several news items, the description switched from absolute figures to shares or rates (crime per lakh population), making comparisons difficult"

 

A news item in Deccan Chronicle (Kerala still leads on crime rate in India) is a good example of the confusion created by switching. It notes: “With regard to cases related to political issues also, Kerala has the highest rate of 3.3 with 1,171 incidents during 2016. However, with regard to political murders, Kerala stands third after UP and Bihar. While 15 murders in the state in 2016 were attributed to political reasons, UP tops with 29 and Bihar with 26.”

It begins by reporting the rate and the number of political cases. It then refers to ranks in terms of political murders and reports the number of such murders. However, if the rates of political murders are compared, contrary to the news item, Kerala will be ahead of UP and Bihar.

 

Anachronistic readings

A more serious problem relates to anachronistic reading of statistics. The headline of an Aaj Tak news item (NCRB ka khulaasaa: Desh bhar mein hatya aur cyber crime maamlon mein avval hai UP) suggested that UP is the most crime-prone state in the country. Aaj Tak interpreted the NCRB report as if it described the state of affairs at present, even though the NCRB report covers the calendar year 2016. The news item says, “jitni bhi apraadhik ghatnayein hoti hain” (of all the criminal incidents that happen), rather than “jitni bhi apraadhik ghatnayein hui theen” (of all the criminal incidents that happened). Similarly, The Asian Age reported that “The National capital is the most unsafe among 19 major cities.” A large number of news items suffered from this problem.

"A more serious problem relates to anachronistic reading of statistics"

 

The above problem assumes a much more serious dimension when anachronistic readings are related to socio-economic and political developments. India Today (5 BJP ruled states have highest crime rates against Dalits, reveals NCRB data) claimed that “The latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) may give the Opposition a shot in the arm for the Gujarat Assembly election.” It reported that “The NCRB… says that the five states that recorded the highest crime rate in the category of "crime/atrocities against scheduled castes" during 2014-16 were all ruled by the BJP directly or in alliance with other parties.” India Today identified Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Bihar, and Gujarat as the five states with the highest number of FIRs related to atrocities against scheduled castes.

The NCRB report covers the calendar year 2016, when the BJP was not a member of the ruling alliance in Bihar. Later in the article India Today noted the fact that the BJP re-joined the Nitish Kumar-led government only earlier this year, but without telling the readers what this meant for the claim made in the headline. The article also pointed out that UP reported the highest number of crimes. Given the headline, it ought to have clarified that the BJP was not in power in UP in 2016.

This India Today news item is problematic for other reasons as well. First, the NCRB report mentions crime statistics for the years 2014, 2015, and 2016, but contrary to India Today’s claim it provides ranks only for the last year (see Table 7A.1 of the NCRB report).

Second, unlike Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh that witnessed sharp increases in cases of atrocities during 2014-16, Goa, Bihar, and Rajasthan registered a decreasing trend. India Today noted this point only with respect to Goa.

Third, India Today reported that “The all-India crime rate against scheduled castes was 20.6 per cent last year.” First of all, the NCRB did not report figures in terms of percentage. The crime rate is defined as the “Number of Cases Reported” in a calendar year divided by the “Mid-Year Projected Population [of the relevant group] in Lakhs.”

Moreover, the all-India figure reported by the NCRB is 20.3 [per lakh scheduled caste population] rather than 20.6, which is the rate for all states of India excluding UTs.

Fourth, India Today seems to suggest that the NCRB mentions that the five worst states happen to be BJP-ruled states. However, the NCRB identifies states merely by their names and does not provide any further information about them, such as which party is in power.

Jansatta published a news item “Ab UP mein patrakar ki hatya, murder mein number one hai Yogi Adityanath ka rajya” (Now the murder of a journalist in UP, Yogi Adityanath’s state is number one in murder). The news item that covered the murder of a journalist in Kanpur noted: “Udhar National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)2016 ke aankade bhi jaari hue, jinse spasht hai ki mukhyamantri Yogi Adityanath ke rajya mein sabse adhik hatyaein aur apraadh hue” (The recently released NCRB data show that Adityanath’s state/rule has witnessed most murders and crimes [in the country]). However, as noted earlier, the latest report does not cover the period after 2016; Adityanath came to power in 2017.

Livemint (Uttar Pradesh tops the list on crimes against women in 2016) refers to experts who attribute “the spurt in cybercrimes… especially in the post-demonetization period” to “the absence of any deterrent mechanism by way of legal provision.” The absence of an appropriate legal framework for the digital age that this government is forcing on the country continues to be a serious problem for the common man and the large informal sector of the economy. However, demonetisation affected only 7 out of the 52 weeks in 2016. So, if demonetisation can explain the “spurt,” there has to be a major increase in cybercrimes in those seven weeks. The NCRB report does not provide monthly cybercrime statistics. Actually, there was no “spurt” because, as Livemint noted a little earlier in the same news item, “cybercrimes increased [only] marginally.”

TOI (7k of 30k murders in UP-Bihar in 2016) pointed out that “The popular perception that the crime graph has gone down after prohibition in Bihar last year notwithstanding, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that the state saw the second highest number of cases of heinous crime, including murder.”

Prohibition was introduced on April 1, 2016. So, three-fourths of the year was affected by prohibition. The news item concluded that prohibition failed to affect crime because Bihar ranked second across states in 2016 in terms of the number of heinous crimes including murder.

A comparison across years shows that the number of incidents of murders in Bihar have dropped from 3403 in 2014 to 3178 in 2015 and 2581 in 2016. While these numbers question TOI’s claim, they do not prove that the decline is related to prohibition as there has been a general trend in decline in the number of murders both within Bihar and across the country.

A news item in TOI (Drop in cases shows Centre’s anti-graft drive has hit home) noted that “Digitalisation of the economy and stricter vigilance may be paying off as the NCRB data indicates that corruption in states has gone down significantly.” But it went on to add that the data could as well “indicate that people were not coming forth to report corruption charges.” TOI chose a headline that nudged readers toward a particular interpretation, even though other interpretations were not implausible.

 

Selective use of data: are Naga women really safer?

The Morung Express, a Dimapur-based English daily, presented an interesting reading of the NCRB report (Nagaland: Safest for women, 3rd lowest crime rate in India): “If you are looking for heaven on earth (or, at least, in the Indian Union) and haven’t found it, take a look at Nagaland. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2016 statistics have found Nagaland at its usual place towards the bottom... For women, there is even better news. Nagaland is the safest place in the country, ranked at 36 in crimes against women!”

The Morung Express selectively accepted the data. As per Table 1A.4 (Column 77), the rate of extortion in Nagaland was seven times the national average and the second highest in the country. The high rate of extortion reported in the NCRB database is despite the general reluctance to complain against insurgent groups that run well-organised extortion rackets. Interestingly, Table 1A.4 appears ahead of Table 3A.1 for crimes against women. In any case, it is only a matter of time before the national media uncritically reproduce the rosy assessment of women’s safety in Nagaland.

Nagaland has reported very few crimes against women partly because the Constitution (Article 371A (1)(ii-iii)) makes room for “Naga customary law and procedure” and “administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law.” As a result, in Nagaland many cases go to customary courts, whereas the NCRB exclusively reports cases registered by the police (and excludes non-FIR cases or cases that are not sent to judicial magistrates). This partly explains the low rates of crime, including those against women. It is not the case that the local media is not aware of this. In fact, given the massive discrepancy between the cases registered and the distress calls received by the Women Helpline, in the past local newspapers have themselves warned against “complacence” (Nagaland ‘safest’ state for women: Reality screams ‘No, ’Eastern Mirror). Local newspapers also discussed the structural disabilities of Nagaland’s women during the violent protests against reservations for women in urban local bodies in February.

 

Representing numbers through words and images

 

Most news items carried headlines that referred to ranks or used superlative adjectives: “Delhi most unsafe, tops crime chart among 19 major cities” (Asian Age), “Kerala still leads on crime rate in India” (Deccan Chronicle), “Maharashtra most corrupt, Delhi tops in crimes: NCRB” (HT), “Maharashtra’s shame: first in outraging woman’s modesty” (The Hindu), “NCRB data: Delhi, UP top crime list” (The Indian Express), “Delhi most unsafe place for foreigners in India: NCRB” (TOI),“Hyderabad stands second in ‘cruelty by husbands’: NCRB” (The New Indian Express), “Nagaland: Safest for women, 3rd lowest crime rate in India” (The Morung Express), “Uttar Pradesh Records Highest Number Of Murders, Delhi Tops In Overall Crime Rate, Say 2016 NCRB Data” (Outlook).

The list continues: “5 BJP ruled states have highest crime rates against Dalits, reveals NCRB data” (India Today), “Delhi Records Highest Crime Rate, Most Rape Cases Among 19 Major Cities” (NDTV), “Delhi records highest cases of crimes against women in 2016, Lucknow and Jaipur follow: NCRB data” (Scroll), “NCRB ka khulasaa [revelation]: Desh bhar mein hatya aur cyber crime maamlon mein avval [first] hai UP” (Aaj Tak), “Kroron ki thagi ke maamlon mein bhi dilli avval [first] sthan par” (Dainik Jagran), “Apraadh ki suchi mein shirsh [top] par Uttar Pradesh NCRB” (Navbharat Times), and “Ab UP mein patrakar ki hatya, murder mein number one hai Yogi Adityanath ka rajya” (Jansatta).

A related type of headline played with the fact that Delhi is the capital city, while Mumbai is known as Maximum city: “Maximum city, minimal safety” (DNA), “National Crime Records Bureau: Predatory Capital haunted women in '16” (DNA), “Crime Capital: Delhi records 39% of offences in metros” (TOI), “Kidnap capital” (HT, December 04, print edition), and “NCRB data reinforces Delhi’s rape capital tag” (HT). The last news item, though, noted that the sensationalist focus on Delhi distracts from problems elsewhere.

Sensational headlines were complemented by crude and sensational images that affected the reader’s ability to dispassionately engage with the data. In passing, note that several infographics accompanying the news items were hazy (DNAand The Hindu), not self-explanatory (DNA), at odds with the headline (The Hindu), or incorrect (The Hindu).

The second most common headlines referred to the direction of change in the level of crimes: “Ghaziabad saw 20% rise in crimes last year: National Crime Records Bureau” (TOI), “Spurt in rape cases, with M.P., U.P. (The Hindu), “Murder, rioting, robbery, dacoity decline in three years: NCRB” (Business Standard), and “NCRB data, 2016: Mumbai’s crime rate dips marginally by 12 per cent” (The Indian Express).

"Sensational headlines were complemented by crude and sensational images that affected the reader’s ability to dispassionately engage with the data"

 

Other headlines highlighted magnitudes: “NCRB data, 2016: Mumbai’s crime rate dips marginally by 12 per cent” (The Indian Express) and “7k of 30k murders in UP-Bihar in 2016” (TOI). Yet others referred to rates: “2016 saw 106 rapes a day, Delhi the capital here too” (TOI), “In UP, a vehicle’s stolen every 15 minutes” (TOI), and "700 arrested, 552 cases filed every hour in 2016" (DNA).

A few headlines sounded as if the news items covered some examination or competition: “Bengaluru second in crime chart, pips Mumbai” (Deccan Herald), “Mumbai pips Bangalore as metro with most cyber crimes; illegal gains, sexual harassment cases top the charts” (The Indian Express), and "Data’s out: city third in crime rate" (The Hindu).

Exceptions to the above headlines included: “Telangana: Zero conviction in cybercrime cases” (Deccan Chronicle), "More girls, women go missing than boys, men: NCRB data, 2016" (The Indian Express), and “Not enough being done to address violence: activists” (The Hindu).

 

Gratuitous inferences

A few other points about the use of language and headlines bear noting. First, several news items used ‘data’ as a singular noun (see, for instance, DNA, India Today,HT, and TOI). Second, gratuitous inferences impaired analyses. For instance, TOI(Crime Capital: Delhi records 39% of offences in metros) noted that “Of the 41,761 cases of crime against women, 13,803 took place in Delhi, implying a 33% incidence” and then added that “Mumbai comparably was kinder to women with 5,128 cases or 12.3% of the total.”

Third, the choice of headline prioritized certain interpretations of data. A news item in TOI (Drop in cases shows Centre’s anti-graft drive has hit home) noted that it is possible to interpret the data either as supporting the claim that digitalisation of the economy has reduced corruption or as supporting the claim that people are less forthcoming to report corruption. Yet TOI highlighted the positive conclusion when it could have chosen a more neutral headline.

Fourth, TOI published an item with the headline “75% women abducted for marriage in UP” in its print edition. One has to either read the whole news item or visit the web version to figure out that TOI meant to say “Of all abductions reported in UP, over 75% are of women for marriage.”

 

Placing numbers in their context

 

A TOInews item (Delhi most unsafe place for foreigners in India: NCRB) points out that together Delhi, Maharashtra, and Pondicherry accounted for about 60 per cent of the crimes reported against foreigners, whereas “No such cases surfaced in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttarakhand, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu and Lakshadweep.” This statement is devoid of meaning unless the number of foreign visitors to the state/UT is taken into account and the rate of crimes against foreigners is compared with the rate of crimes targeting local people.

Another TOI news item (Crime rate up in Telangana, spurt in rape and cheating cases) pointed out that “Though the youngest state [Telangana] in the country stands 11th among all the states in terms of number of cases registered, the crime rate is still very high.” It is not clear why the age of a state should be related to crime.

A news item on the website of NDTV (Yeh hain desh ke vah panch shehar jahan hoti hai hain sabse zyada aapradhik ghatnaein, list mein kai chonkaane vale naam) argues that the claims of police departments of various states notwithstanding, crime has been soaring over the years. Is the crime rate growing faster than the population, economy, expansion of police stations, etc?

A news item in The Indian Express (Crime rate down in Mumbai, up in Maharashtra) points out that nearly one in every five crimes registered by the Railway Protection Force occurs in Maharashtra (20.9%). However, it did not ask if the extensive network of local trains in Mumbai (elsewhere people depend more on road transport) and the greater goods traffic in the state due to Mumbai being the commercial gateway of the country, might account for Maharashtra’s abnormally large share.

 

Some papers made an effort to explain the context

While the above examples illustrate how inferences could be misleading if the larger context of crimes is overlooked, several others did make an attempt to situate crime statistics in their contexts. A TOI editorial (Crying for help) disaggregated the 82 per cent jump in child rape cases into better reporting of crimes, criminalisation of consensual sexual activity involving adolescents, and actual increase in such crimes. An HT article (Home Truths: Why we need a strong law against domestic violence) referred to the latest data to debunk the claim that strong domestic violence laws are liable to be misused.

Based on a comparison of incidence of murders in Bihar, Kerala, and UP, an editorial in The Hindu (Capturing crime — on the NCRB data for 2016) rightly called for examining the relation between crime and “social development.” However, it overlooked the fact that Kerala reported the highest overall incidence of crime in the country. Deccan Chronicle (Kerala still leads on crime rate in India) argues that “The higher crime rate in Kerala is often attributed to effective policing and people’s insistence on filing cases and the higher rate of suo motu cases registered by the state police.” The relationship between crime and social development is, therefore, complex and requires careful assessment.

"Several others did make an attempt to situate crime statistics in their contexts"

 

A news item in The Indian Express (NCRB data, 2016: Mumbai’s crime rate dips marginally by 12 per cent) pointed out that “the jump in kidnapping cases [in Mumbai] was a result of the strict implementation of a Supreme Court order which directed the police to treat all complaints about missing children as possible kidnapping cases.”

HT (NCRB data reinforces Delhi’s rape capital tag) discussed at length crime against women in Delhi. TOIoffered a detailed discussion on vehicle theft in Ghaziabad (Ghaziabad saw 20% rise in crimes last year: National Crime Records Bureau). Another TOIitem (Protests and riots due to agrarian distress almost doubled in 2016) briefly reflected on the agrarian distress and political unrest in Jammu and Kashmir as reflected in the NCRB data. (Incidentally, none of the newspapers discussed water and environment-related crimes.)

 

Comparing different strands of Dalit data

A few news items compared different strands of the NCRB data. The Indian Express (Crime against Dalits: UP and Bihar worst states, Lucknow and Patna worst cities) explored the data on caste-related crimes through the lenses of the urban-rural divide and geography. It suggests that, contrary to popular belief, caste lines do not get blurred in cities. In fact, “urban areas tend to reflect the pattern in their surrounding rural belts.”

So, in most cases, the rank of states and their capitals in terms of atrocities against scheduled castes are comparable, except in the case of Karnataka that reported a low rate of such crimes, while its capital Bengaluru reported a very high rate. Elsewhere, The Indian Express (Crime against Dalits: UP and Bihar worst states, Lucknow and Patna worst cities) highlights the difficulty in calculating crimes rates related to atrocities against scheduled castes in urban areas.

The Indian Express (NCRB Data, 2016: Most atrocities against Dalits involve crimes against women, most cases in Bengaluru) also explored atrocities against scheduled castes through the lenses of gender and geography. It found that “a major chunk of crimes against Dalits involves the violation of women.” It also highlighted abnormalities in patterns of atrocities across cities. “More than 95% of cases in Patna were registered for minor crimes… [whereas] Bengaluru has registered more than 90% of its cases solely under the provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.”

An editorial (Unequal spaces) capped the discussions on atrocities against caste in The Indian Express. The editorial noted the longstanding belief, which can be traced back to Dr. Ambedkar, among others, that “urbanisation could end Dalit oppression.” It argued that seven decades later, the facts on the ground suggest the contrary as urban areas are no less violent for Dalits. It then related the emergence of new Dalit mobilisations across the country to the fact of persistent violence faced by the community.

The differences between urban and rural areas and between different states with regard to the filing of cases related to corruption (HT, Maharashtra most corrupt, Delhi tops in crimes: NCRB), atrocities against scheduled castes (The Indian Express, Crime against Dalits: UP and Bihar worst states, Lucknow and Patna worst cities),crimes against state (The Hindu, Tamil Nadu tops in offences against State), cybercrimes (The Indian Express, Mumbai pips Bangalore as metro with most cyber crimes; TOI, Fin capital now cyber crime hub), abandonment of children (TOI, Mumbai stays 2nd for third year in crime against kids), and crimes against women (TOI, Maximum City second only to Delhi in crimes against women; The Hindu, Maharashtra’s shame: first in outraging woman’s modesty; The Hindu, Delhi tops list for number of crimes against women; Livemint, Uttar Pradesh tops the list on crimes against women in 2016; Times Now Highest number of rape cases registered in Madhya Pradesh in 2016, reveals NCRB data) were also discussed in various news items.

Fewer news items tried to cross-verify the NCRB data from other sources. For an exception, see NDTV (West Bengal Records Highest Number Of Human Trafficking Cases In 2016) that compares the NCRB data with field surveys. Some news items referred to well-known cases to validate NCRB crime statistics and provide a human face to numbers (TOI, Mumbai stays 2nd for third year in crime against kids; TOI, Crime against children, Scheduled Tribes soars in Odisha: NCRB; The Hindu, Tamil Nadu tops in offences against State; The Hindu, NCRB data shows nearly 28% jump in major crimes in Bengaluru).

 

The verdict: shallow, sensational, selective, careless, and lacking rigour

A majority of news items presented assorted statistics and were short and devoid of depth. In addition, several stories were sensational. The North East, Chhattisgarh, and Jammu and Kashmir and tribes did not receive more than a passing mention in the mainstream media’s coverage of crime statistics.

Only the initial portions of the NCRB report that discuss the incidence of crime were covered in the media, while statistics about the lifecycle of cases in the police and judicial systems were largely ignored except for a brief mention in a handful of news items (The Hindu, Many cybercrime cases not investigated, NCRB data shows; Times Now, Crime rate in Uttar Pradesh more than any other state: NCRB; The Hindu, MP has most number of repeat offenders).

With a few exceptions (The Indian Express, Reason for 34 per cent ‘drop’ in crimes: NCRB’s data collection correction and The Hindu, NCRB data showed a nearly 28% jump in major crimes in Bengaluru), there was no discussion on changes in the definitions of certain crimes and the formulae for calculation of various rates. The rules followed for counting crimes against women, children, SC/ST, and senior citizens and crimes involving juveniles in conflict with the law that affect the reported incidence of crime were also not discussed. Neither was there any discussion on the NCRB data for 2016 provided only on its website and not in the annual report.

"Ideally, newspapers should first discuss the quality of data and then provide readers with the context within which data need to be read"

 

Inputs from news agencies and summary statistics provided in the NCRB report aided speedy online publication even before the news desk had the time to carefully read through the report, let alone reflect on it. After the release of the report for 2015 an article published in The Hindu (NCRB data: Handle with care) noted the following: With the increasing popularity of NCRB data comes increased responsibility for the agency, especially when the data are referenced by national and international agencies for policymaking and research. It is time the NCRB took the onus for the data it publishes and strived for authenticity instead of “statistical consistency”. Until then, handle NCRB data with care.”

Perhaps it is time the media too refrained from the hasty dissemination of poorly understood numbers and chose its words carefully.

Ideally, newspapers should first discuss the quality of data and then provide readers with the context within which data need to be read. Information about laws necessitating or facilitating the filing of FIR of certain laws, reporting bias, police stations and policemen per lakh persons, access to women police stations, the attitude of the ruling party toward women empowerment, literacy, unemployment, female literacy and work participation rates, sex ratios, income distribution, media and NGO penetration, and conviction rates are necessary to understand trends and patterns in crime.

In the absence of the pause suggested here, crucial points are overlooked. For instance, in the rush to distribute ranks based on, say, the incidence of murder, we failed to pay attention to the fact that the police does not know the motive in almost 50 per cent of the murders, which can be seen as an indicator of the poor quality of the data, or the NCRB is using an outdated population series to arrive at rates of crime. Also, completely overlooked was the absence of data on attacks on journalists.

At a more general level, the media coverage of crime statistics shares shortcomings with the treatment of statistics in the recent past when, for instance, Pew survey results were released or the country debated the aftermath of demonetisation on its first anniversary. The coverage of the release of the latest NCRB report is also reminiscent of the clumsy coverage of the release of the 2011 Census data on religion in 2015.

In each of these cases, the media mostly failed in its role as a public watchdog. Sensational headlines, misleading use of adjectives, anachronistic inferences, misinterpretation of data, careless use of a mix of absolute numbers, rates, and ranks, and lack of cross-examination of government data in the media affected the quality of public debate. In light of the above and also the growing circulation of statistics in society, there is an urgent need for serious attention to the development of the fledgling field of data journalism.

 

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

 

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