Tottenham riots: Data journalists and social scientists should join forces

In the wake of some of the worst riots in London in more than a decade, Ben Goldacre has said on Twitter:

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Yes, we’re now going to have to suffer through lots of ill-informed speculation from columnists. Brace yourself yet again as they take out their favourite axe from the kitchen cupboard and grind away on it just a bit more until the head is gone and they’re whittling the handle into a toothpick. It will enrage more than enlighten.

I have a better suggestion. With the current interest in data journalism, this would be a great time to revisit one of the seminal moments of data journalism carried out by Philip Meyer in the wake of the 1967 riots in Detroit. As a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Meyer studied not only how social science could be applied to journalism, but he also explored how main frame computers could be used to quickly analyse data. (For data journalists, if you don´t already own it, you should buy a copy of  Meyer´s book, Precision Journalism, first published in 1973 and since updated.) As a national correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers, Meyer was sent to Detroit to help cover the riots.

The 1967 Detroit riots stand as the third worst in the history of the US, only eclipsed by the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King and draft riots in New York during the US Civil War. As the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan said:

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News threw every resource they had into covering the uprising. And as the disturbance died down, journalists and commentators, most of them white, struggled to understand who the rioters were and why they had taken to the streets. One theory was that those who looted and burned buildings were on the bottom rung of society—riff raff with no money and no education. A second theory speculated that rioters were recent arrivals from the South who had failed to assimilate and were venting their frustrations on the city.

But for many, those theories rang false.

A survey had been done following the 1965 Watts riots. Meyer approached Nathan Caplan, a friend from graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They both had a similar idea to see if a survey similar to the one done after Watts could be done in Detroit. One challenge was that the Watts study took two years, but Meyer wanted it done in three weeks. The ISR has an article that looks at the process in great depth, and what is clear is that the study of the 1967 Detroit riots and the journalism that followed had a lot of support not only from the newspapers but from the university, government and local foundations. They recruited and trained 30 teachers to conduct the surveys, drew up a random sample and interviewed 437 black residents.

The survey debunked a number of theories put forward to explain the violence.

  • One theory was that the rioters were poor and uneducated. No, the survey found otherwise. ¨There was no correlation between economic status and participation in the disturbance. College-educated residents were as likely as high school dropouts to have taken part.¨
  • Another theory laid the blame at recent arrivals from the south who had little connections to the community. That theory was also wrong. ¨Recent immigrants from the South had not played a major role; in fact, Northerners were three times as likely to have rioted.¨

Like Ben, I´m sure that we´ll see hours of speculation on television and acres of newsprint positing theories. However, theories need to be tested. The Detroit riots showed that a partnership amongst social scientists, foundations, the local community and journalists can prove or disprove these theories and hopefully provide solutions rather than recriminations.