Over at Macleans OnCampus, Robyn Urback shrugs off the political and social causes and implications of the UK riots. Fair enough; you can make a reasoned argument in that direction, even though I disagree. But she does one very unfortunate thing while making her case, which is fairly emblematic of the problems I’ve noticed with media coverage of the unrest.
In arguing that the riots had nothing to do with poverty or inequality, she makes the following statement:
And many of the rioters, in fact, are not disadvantaged youth, but 30-something teachers, youth workers, and graphic designers. To ponder socio-economic excuses for these crimes is to give those who have succumbed to mob mentality a political agenda to fall back on.
The first problem here is to pluralize ‘teachers’, ‘youth workers’ and ‘graphic designers’. If you follow Urback’s own links, it is clear that only one teacher, one youth worker, and one graphic designer have been arrested. Contrary to what Urback suggests, wild packs of young professionals are not roaming the streets of London, and the vast majority of the rioters remain young, under- or unemployed, and poor.
Urback also makes the mistake of suggesting that the outlier is in fact representative of the whole. The teacher, designer, youth worker, future soldier and grad student (these latter two being identified in other media reports as counter-intuitive examples of riot participants) represent about 0.5 per cent of the total arrests (the latest arrest reports indicate that “more than 900″ people have been detained, so I’m pegging the number at about 950). In quantitative analysis, this is what we refer to as “statistically insignificant”. There may well be more young professionals arrested, but we don’t actually know if this is true or how many there are. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the rioters include a large number of comfy middle class folks, and to further conclude that this means the riots have nothing to do with inequality.
Urback is by no means the only reporter to confuse weather (a discrete phenomenon) with climate (a generalized trend) in the riot story. Her example is nevertheless important in understanding how this distorts debate. The pictures and video of the riots discomfit many observers, and this kind of outlier-as-reality is a convenient way to insulate analysis from deeper questions of cause and context. Portraying the violence as a kind of random, inexplicable outbreak of mindless criminality is comforting to many, because it prevents the necessary consideration of why the riots are happening, and how they might be complicit in the overarching social and economic circumstances that fueled the unrest. This is an understandable response, as no one likes being uncomfortable. However, I would suggest it is not an appropriate response for members of the media, those who are tasked with interpreting these events for the rest of us.