If I Were to Get Peevish, This Is What It Would Look Like

In the newsroom, I don’t
believe in pet peeves. Way too many things nettle me to name just one as a
favorite. And face it: most pet peeves, including the ones I don't have, arise from some point of arbitrary wisdom elevated to a principle that's really just an excuse to vent about how no one does things the right way anymore.

But if I ever let myself indulge in the pet peeve thing, one of mine would be the use
of murder rate when one means murder toll. This is of particular concern now when cities are toting up the body count for the past year and feeding it to reporters who repeat the numbers (without thinking much about what they may or may not mean; most of thinking isn't a part of the exercise). The murder toll is the simple count
of murders in a particular place in a particular year. The rate is
typically an assessment of the number of homicides per capita (typically
expressed as the number of killings per 100,000 population). That way you can
compare places like Richmond, East Palo Alto and Oakland with
Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.


It’s OK but contrived
to use rate as a way of extrapolating or equating the number of murders in one
period of time to another period – “Pleasantville police say there have been
100 murders in the first six months of 2008; at that rate, the city will break
its yearly record of 190, set in 2007.” Personally, I’d stay away from this use
of rate because in the Bay Area, anyway, the ebb and flow of murder stats do
not seem to follow any rhyme or reason summed up by such simple arithmetic. Better
to apply this sense of rate in retrospect: “Police say 130 people were murdered
in Pleasantville in 2008. That’s one of the highest tolls on record, but police
note that the rate of killings dropped markedly after the bloody first six
months of the year, when 100 homicides were reported.”

Like I said: If I were to have a pet peeve, I could get some mileage out of this one.

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