Engineering the Answer: Is Calgary a Safe City?
Engineering the Answer: Is Calgary a Safe City?
IS CALGARY A SAFE CITY?
This post is simply to add some perspective to a typical crime story. The goal is to provide some tools for analyzing and interpreting media.
On January 7th, 2020 City Television aired a news report on Breakfast TV about crime in Calgary. They asserted that 2019 witnessed a “spike” in crime and connected this information with recent homicides and shootings in 2020. They followed this up by asking whether “Calgarians feel safe”.
This is a typical daily news story that can be found on just about any news network in North American. Tell a story about crime, then ask citizens whether they feel safe. Tell a story about violent crime and many people will almost assuredly respond that they feel unsafe. It’s a kind of broken record that has been replayed in the news media for as long as I can remember. “Something bad happened in your community”, says the reporter. “Do you feel safe”, the reporter asks. Much of the time, the interviewee predictably responds that he or she does not. It appears this is a popular model for crime reporting.
ENGINEERING THE ANSWER
To be blunt, this Calgary criminal lawyer is very concerned about this type of media engineered information gathering, whereby doey-eyed citizens are stimmed into a series of virtually scripted emotional responses to unsettling events. “There was a shooting next door to your home, do you feel safe?” Not surprisingly, the answer is often, “I don’t”.
The Breakfast Television (BT) report started with the question: “do Calgarian’s feel safe”? This was followed by a report about shots fired in Calgary, followed by an interview with local residents who were told about the incident. My concern is whether “the news” engineers answers by intentionally or unintentionally biasing interviewees to a particular point of view.
Though BT offered no conclusions or opinion as to whether Calgarians generally feel unsafe, it is my view that many who quickly digested this report over their morning bowl of cereal might be left with the impression that Calgarians generally feel unsafe. However, the question is, do Calgarians really feel unsafe? Perhaps the better question is: should Calgarians feel unsafe?
To begin with, for reasons that I will explain, the responses by those interviewed by BT should be given little or no weight. If a person is presented with information that upsets their sense of safety – such as being told at the beginning of the dialogue with the reporter that a shooting occurred in their community – they may be stimmed to provide an answer that they otherwise would not. It strikes me that it’s best to get the answer to the big question without engineering it with information that may taint that answer and then to allow modifications to the big question after the potentially biasing information has been presented.
HOW TO AVOID ENGINEERING ANSWERS
Perhaps it’s worth thinking about the issue this way. Imagine a reporter approaches a local resident out for a leisurely walk with their dog. Without providing any information as to why the question is being asked, the reporter queries: “Is Calgary a safe City?” I suspect many interviewees would answer, “yes, Calgary is a safe City”; after all, they enjoy living in the City. Whatever the answer, the follow-up question should be: why do you feel safe (or unsafe as the case may be) in this City? I imagine many would list a number of reasons as to why Calgary is a safe (or unsafe) place to live. From here, the reporter might then inform the interviewee about the crime that was allegedly committed in his or her neighborhood and follow this up with a final question: “do you still feel safe (or unsafe) in Calgary”. It strikes me that if answers to the main question were obtained in this unbiased fashion, interviewees would be more likely to stick with their original answer notwithstanding the added information about a crime committed in the community. Also, it would be more likely that the interviewee would explain any modifications to their original answer; for example, why they now feel unsafe when they previously felt safe.
Why is this important?
To begin with, as a community we should be careful in diminishing the value of our community based upon anomalous or emotional events, such as those triggered by the commission of crime. This is so because a properly functioning democracy requires that all of us should engage public debate from a rational starting point, not an emotional one. The topic of crime is often very emotional subject matter.
Additionally, since people voraciously gobble up easily digested information, such as that disseminated by various media, including fake news, it is very important that we do so with extreme caution. In my opinion, the media has an important responsibility to make best efforts to disseminate information that wherever possible, meaningfully advances public debate and public awareness. Just as a competent scientist should not stack variables to favour a particular result, the media should make best efforts to avoid engineering answers to important questions that might impact our community. In the case of the BT report, interviewees were told about the crime in their community and then asked whether Calgary is a safe City. Now, certainly some of them did not take the bait, but some did. I am left to wonder whether those that did would have concluded Calgary is an unsafe city (or that they did not feel safe) if their answers were not engineered by knowledge that a crime happened in their community.
In Media Control, Noam Chomsky wrote: “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian State”.
“Propaganda” is defined as information of a biased or misleading nature used to publicize a particular political cause or point of view”. If answers to important questions are engineered by biasing the process for answering the question, or the answer itself, the public may unconsciously bludgeon itself into a particular point of view. This is arguably a powerful propaganda technique.
Of course, this is not to say that Calgarians should ignore the proliferation of crime in the City as part of the informational matrix to answer questions about public safety. Rather, I am saying, if the news media biases the answer by tainting it with information apparently designed to trigger an emotional response, the value of the news report and the public response contained therein, is questionable at best. As consumers of news, we have a responsibility to be sceptical and to perhaps even ignore such information.
Let us now analyze this more pragmatically.
In 2019 there were apparently 20 confirmed homicides in the City of Calgary – a slight increase from 18 confirmed homicides the year prior.
It is noteworthy that homicides in Calgary actually declined demonstrably over the last two-years. To that end, there were 32 homicides in 2014, 40 in 2015, 33 in 2016 and 31 in 2017.
As reported by the CBC, it appears that since the start of Alberta’s economic recession, incidents of shoplifting are up considerably. Calgary’s “crime severity index” rose 5% while the Province of Alberta remained stable. That said, as the CBC reported:
…Statistics Canada noted both the rate and severity of crime were still substantially lower than they were a decade ago, both down 17 per cent since 2008.
The crime rate in Canada peaked in 1991 and has been in dramatic decline since then, falling by more than 50 per cent until 2014. Since 2014, however, the rate is up just over eight per cent. Most of the movement in the crime rate is the result of changes in non-violent crime.
The increase in the severity of crime from 2017 to 2018 was driven largely by higher rates of fraud, shoplifting and other thefts, the agency said.
But while violent crime overall increased, the homicide rate reversed an upward trend over the last few years by declining by four per cent in 2018.
Now, I am not saying that Calgarians may not have some reason to have safety concerns, but there is definitely a difference between being concerned about safety and feeling unsafe. Where having concerns about anything is generally healthy, I am of the opinion that generally feeling negative emotions is not. In my view, to feel “unsafe” in Canada is both unhealthy and irrational.
It’s unhealthy because when people feel unsafe they may be more prepared to surrender basic liberties in exchange for safety. It is also unhealthy because negative emotions are fecund and as such may weed their way into the public consciousness – so deeply that they may impact public discourse on important topics effecting our very way of life. I say feeling unsafe in Calgary (or in Canada) is not only unhealthy, it is irrational; for there are a lot of reasons to feel more “safe” in 2020 than in previous years. Simply put, this is a really good Country.
The dialogue about public safety is important because it not only potentially impacts the security-liberty narrative, it drives public discourse about the allocation of public resources. To that end, as people feel less secure, they may be more likely to agree to spend tax dollars on expensive, but unnecessary crime initiatives, including expanding the police force, prosecuting agencies and the military. None of these initiatives will necessarily translate into meaningful crime reduction but certainly may temporarily assuage unreasonable public safety concerns.
To be clear, I am not arguing that these services do not deserve additional taxpayer funding; rather, I am saying that to decide whether any one or more of these are worthy initiatives, we should be fully and properly informed as to why. We should not fall prey to emotional trickery caused by irrational public safety fears.
In Media Control Chomsky highlighted that good propaganda creates a slogan that nobody’s going to be against and everybody is going to be for. In his view, specialized classes aim to keep the bewildered herd properly scared. This is done by creating meaningless questions that drive public discourse. To borrow Chomsky’s example, “do you support the troops”. Notice, though one might say “no, I don’t support the troops”, the answer en-masse is likely to be “of course I support the troops”; for there is no reason not to support the troops.
Chomsky’s rationale can be applied to a variety of scenarios happening each and every day. For example, the question: “are you soft on crime”. Like the “do you support the troops” example, this is a meaningless question; for of course it is unlikely that any law-abiding person is going to say, “yes, I’m soft on crime”. Now I appreciate the questions “do you support the troops” and “are you soft on crime” are not quite the same as the Breakfast TV question: “Do Calgarians feel safe?”. However, just as questions such as “do you support the troops” and “are you soft on crime” are posed to engineer the answer, the question “do Calgarians feel safe” is also engineered when it is presented after the media has stimulated the interviewee’s mind with unsettling information about violent events happening in the community, sometimes right next door. Simply, engineering the answer is a powerful propaganda tool.
I am one of many Calgary criminal lawyers who has been defending clients in this City and throughout Alberta for decades. Not surprisingly, I have been exposed to a lot of pretty nasty stuff. That said, I was born in Canada. I grew up in Alberta and have spent most of my life in Calgary. In this City I have forged an exceptional friend-group and have had the privilege of being resident in a place that has allowed me to flourish personally, professionally and emotionally. Despite some of the nastiness in this City, it is worth thinking about life here as infinitely more positive than negative. It is also worth keeping in mind that though bad things happen in all places where thousands (or millions) of people exist in close proximity to each other, those bad things are, all things considered, relatively anomalous in Calgary. From consuming media, it is easy to think that the world is bad and that our streets are plagued with villainy. I think realistically speaking, this is just not true.
These are only my thoughts.
David G. Chow