Math Matters: The New York Times flubs Baltimore murder spike

The New York Times blows the math in murder spike story.

[AMENDED/Corrected: Reading comprehension matters, and so does graphic clarity. As an alert reader points out, the Times graphic is NOT about the percent increase in the city's murder rate, as we (and he, and probably most readers) assumed. It's (apparently) the raw increase in the rate of killings per 100,000 population. Which makes it an accurate, if not entirely sensible depiction of the rise in Baltimore's murder rate.] 


The New York Times made a glaring math error confusing editorial choice today in a big graphic and story about the mathematics of murder. "Murder Rates Rose in a Quarter of the Nation's 100 Largest Cities," the paper reported, with a map depicting the cities with the largest increases in 2015, as compared to an average of the previous three years. Baltimore led all comers, with a 20 percent per-100,000 increase, the Times incorrectly stated. 

[Update: The use of the raw murder-per-100,000 population statistic was not clear, and the decision to use that figure, rather than the percentage increase, seems questionable]

Baltimore's actual murder increase in 2015 was 56 percent. The average number of killings in 2012-13-14 was 220. In 2015 there were 344—124 more. That's a lot more than a 20 percent increase. That is almost three times more than a 20 percent increase. 

This matters a lot, given that the piece was about the numbers, and the perception among some that, as Donald Trump says, "crime is out of control." The Times rightly points out that the murder spike is localized in a few cities, and localized still further within the poorest and blackest precincts of those cities. In fact, crime is "out of control" only where African-American live in large numbers in dire poverty. What the rest of America can and will do about this goes to the heart of the democratic project—a debate that needs to be continued, with real facts and correct intelligible statistics. 

St. Louis came in second with an 18- percent per-100,000 murder increase, the Times reported.(We did not check their math on that). St. Louis actually bested Baltimore in the all-important total murders-per-100,000 population stat. 

But this is why Baltimore is such an outlier. An 18 or 20 percent murder spike is a terrible thing. But a 50 percent spike, when layered atop an already routinely high rate, is a signal that something very big is happening. It can arguably be called threat to a city's viability. 

The Times tried to explain the Baltimore spike by citing the DEA's claim that drug store and methadone clinic looting after Freddie Gray's funeral added so much product to the local industry that people went crazy. 

"During the riots, nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen from 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a number much higher than the 175,000 doses the agency initially estimated," the Times informs us.

But the initial claim of 175,000 "units" stolen (which former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts claimed was enough "to keep Baltimore intoxicated for a year") would be only a few days' supply at best. The upward-revised estimate still doesn't make much of a dent in the local supply.  

Math matters.

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