News stories of officers being attacked and killed while in the line of duty have become regular features of the nightly news broadcast, but does this increase in coverage reflect an increase in reality? My analysis suggests no.

A count of stories of police officers killed in the line of duty shows that media attention to these killings has increased dramatically since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Between one third and one half of all of the news stories that the “legacy” networks’ (ABC, CBS, NBC) have done on this topic over the last ten years have appeared in the last year. Fox News has run more stories on this topic this year than it did over the four previous years combined.

2Actual incidences of fatal violence against police officers perpetrated by civilians, however, have not been on the rise. Data on police officer deaths compiled by the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund shows that the year since Michael Brown’s death has not been especially dangerous for police officers, at least when it comes to the danger of being maliciously attacked by another person. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund’s data, in the year following Michael Brown’s death, 43 police officers were shot and killed, which is significantly less than the average of 54 police officer shooting per year over the last ten years. Looking back even further, policing is much safer now than any time in the last 45 years.


The impression that civilians are targeting officers, then, is a reflection of media coverage, not reality. This is a phenomenon called agenda setting, a process by which the media put an item on the public agenda.

What’s particularly troubling here is not necessarily that the media has put police killings by civilians on the agenda, but that they have failed to do so when it was. Many more officers were being killed in the line of duty in 2011, the most lethal year for police officers over the last ten years, and yet the news media gave scant attention to their deaths.


What explains this divergence between the reality of violence against police officers and the degree to which the news media covers it? It is not simply a matter of ideology. Fox News — the most conservative of the news outlets shown here — has run more stories on police officer deaths this year than the other news outlets, but we can see the same basic pattern across all news outlets, with the exception of National Public Radio.

I suspect that the answer has to do with news framing and the way in which news organizations display their objectivity by giving equal time to “both sides of the story.” Faced with questions and criticism after each high-profile event of police violence against civilians, police spokespeople constantly remind us of the dangers faced by their officers as a means of blunting those criticisms. In giving equal airtime to “both sides” of the issue, news outlets help to spread this message. Whether out of an internal desire to be “balanced” or in direct response to these PR moves, media has picked up the “dangers of policing” narrative.

Ironically, in their effort to tell a balanced story, the news media has interjected itself in a contentious debate by presenting a false symmetry of violence when, in reality, the newsworthy trend is the dramatic increase in deaths at the hands of police.

This narrative is not only bad for understanding what’s really happening between police officers and civilians, it may also be bad for police officers themselves by distracting us from the more common sources of police officer death. As the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund notes, over the last three years the leading cause of police officer deaths in the line duty is car accidents. Indeed, while the number of officers shot and killed is lower this year than for the same time period last year, the total number of officers killed is higher, and that is due to the much higher number of officers killed in accidents.

The news media would contribute much more to the important conversation about the relationship between civilians and police if they were more honest about the relative rates of harm from each to the other.

Aaron Major, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany – SUNY. He does research in the areas of globalization and economic policy, neoliberalism and public policy, and social inequality.

In a previous post, I wrote about a University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title – “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months.

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league…

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

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Today marks ten years to the day that Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast.   These posts are from our archives:

Was Hurricane Katrina a “Natural” Disaster?

Racism and Neglect

Disaster and Discourse

Devastation and Rebuilding

10 Years Later and Beyond

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:

New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 -- School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll
New Orleans, LA 9/4/05 — School buses have been swamped by the floodwaters following hurricane Katrina. Photo by: Liz Roll

When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?

27% of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.

People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.

Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.

For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.

A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston, described here, found that:

…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease…  Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation.  The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. She writes about New Orleans here. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The margin of error is getting more attention than usual in the news. That’s not saying much since it’s usually a tiny footnote, like those rapidly muttered disclaimers in TV ads (“Offer not good mumble mumble more than four hours mumble mumble and Canada”). Recent headlines proclaim, “Trump leads Bush…” A paragraph or two in, the story will report that in the recent poll Trump got 18% and Bush 15%.  That difference is well within the margin of error, but you have to listen closely to hear that. Most people usually don’t want to know about uncertainty and ambiguity.

What’s bringing uncertainty out of the closest now is the upcoming Republican presidential debate. The Fox-CNN-GOP axis has decided to split the field of presidential candidates in two based on their showing in the polls. The top ten will be in the main event. All other candidates – currently Jindal, Santorum, Fiorina, et al. – will be relegated to the children’s table, i.e., a second debate a month later and at the very unprime hour of 5 p.m.

But is Rick Perry’s 4% in a recent poll (419 likely GOP voters) really in a different class than Bobby Jindal’s 25? The margin of error that CNN announced in that survey was a confidence interval of  +/- 5.  Here’s the box score.

Jindal might argue that, with a margin of error of 5 points, his 2% might actually be as high as 7%, which would put him in the top tier.He might argue that, but he shouldn’t.  Downplaying the margin of error makes a poll result seem more precise than it really is, but using that one-interval-fits-all number of five points understates the precision. That’s because the margin of error depends on the percent that a candidate gets. The confidence interval is larger for proportions near 50%, smaller for proportions at the extreme.

Just in case you haven’t taken the basic statistics course, here is the formula.

The   (pronounced “pee hat”) is the proportion of the sample who preferred each candidate. For the candidate who polled 50%, the numerator of the fraction under the square root sign will be 0.5 (1-0.5) = .25.  That’s much larger than the numerator for the 2% candidate:  0.02 (1-0.02) = .0196.*Multiplying by the 1.96, the 50% candidate’s margin of error with a sample of 419 is +/- 4.8. That’s the figure that CNN reported. But plug in Jindal’s 2%, and the result is much less: +/- 1.3.  So, there’s a less than one in twenty chance that Jindal’s true proportion of support is more than 3.3%.

Polls usually report their margin of error based on the 50% maximum. The media reporting the results then use the one-margin-fits-all assumption – even NPR. Here is their story from May 29 with the headline “The Math Problem Behind Ranking The Top 10 GOP Candidates”:

There’s a big problem with winnowing down the field this way: the lowest-rated people included in the debate might not deserve to be there.

The latest GOP presidential poll, from Quinnipiac, shows just how messy polling can be in a field this big. We’ve put together a chart showing how the candidates stack up against each other among Republican and Republican-leaning voters — and how much their margins of error overlap.



The NPR writer, Danielle Kurtzleben, does mention that “margins might be a little smaller at the low end of the spectrum,” but she creates a graph that ignores that reality.The misinterpretation of presidential polls is nothing new.  But this time that ignorance will determine whether a candidate plays to a larger or smaller TV audience.


* There are slightly different formulas for calculating the margin of error for very low percentages.  The Agresti-Coull formula gives a confidence interval even if there are zero Yes responses. (HT: Andrew Gelman)

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie.  Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.

The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest.

But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.

Here is the R-rated version of the trailer:

What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review, the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination,” for example, because… well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”

“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.

As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things: body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter. Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem (see this earlier post). It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.”

With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly a nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo.

Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork.  And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.

Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.

The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive.

Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order (emphasis mine):

Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness

the degradation of sex — and women

uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.

She enjoys a sexual license

Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men

. . . old-fashioned sense of shame,

It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer

Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.

This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,

she aims to acquire cultural power

Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics


I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor.  Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp: a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

 PhD Comics, via Missives from Marx and Dmitriy T.M.

“It is fair to say,” writes historian Heather Williams about the Antebellum period in America, “that most white people had been so acculturated to view black people as different from them that they… barely noticed the pain that they experienced.”

She describes, for example, a white woman who, while wrenching enslaved people from their families to found a distant plantation, describes them as “cheerful,” in “high spirits,” and “play[ful] like children.” It simply never occurred to her or many other white people that black people had the same emotions they did, as the reigning belief among whites was that they were incapable of any complex or deep feeling at all.

It must have created such cognitive dissonance, then — such confusion on the part of the white population — when after the end of slavery, black people tried desperately to reunite with their parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, lovers, children, and friends.

And try they did. For decades newly freed black people sought out their loved ones. One strategy was to put ads in the paper. The “Lost Friends” column was one such resource. It ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate from 1879 until the early 1900s and a collection of those ads — more than 330 from just one year — has been released by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Here is an example:


The ads would have been a serious investment. They cost 50 cents which, at the time, would have been more than a day’s income for most recently freed people.

Williams reports that reunions were rare. She excerpted this success story from the Southwestern in her book, Help Me To Find My People, about enslaved families torn asunder, their desperate search for one another, and the rare stories of reunification.


In the SOUTHWESTERN of March 1st, we published in this column a letter from Charity Thompson, of Hawkins, Texas, making inquiry about her family. She last heard of them in Alabama years ago. The letter, as printed in the paper was read in the First church Houston, and as the reading proceeded a well-known member of the church — Mrs. Dibble — burst into tears and cried out “That is my sister and I have not seen her for thirty three years.” The mother is still living and in a few days the happy family will once more re-united.

I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.