Reporter Notebook Reality Check: how accurate are those surveys?

Reporter Notebook Reality Check: how accurate are those surveys?

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - When President Lincoln said “you can't trust everything you see on the internet,” he wasn't joking.

Do you live in the most dangerous city in North Carolina? The poorest? The fastest growing? The one where people eat the most popcorn, drink the most Cheerwine, or are the most likely to wear sagging pants on Thursdays?  Chances are that if that's what you want to believe, you can find a web site list that will substantiate your claim.

The problem is, many of them have no basis in reality and are created simply to drive traffic to a site by tricking you and legitimate news outlets into sharing or reporting these amazing findings.

Case in point: a recent survey that claimed to list the “Ten Most Dangerous Cities in North Carolina.” The list said it was based on the FBI Uniform Crime Report. Pretty reliable source, right? Then why did another web site that created the very same list based on the very same source material reach a completely different conclusion?

In both surveys Lumberton tops the list, but after that there are discrepancies. Salisbury makes the list at number 9 on one survey, but doesn't appear on the other. Clearly, one or both surveys have to be incorrect.

An article in the Sunday edition of the Statesville Record & Landmark took this issue head on after Statesville was listed as one of the most dangerous.

“One one list, Statesville is considered one of the worst cities in the state for crime. On the other, the city is nowhere to be found,” veteran crime reporter Donna Swicegood wrote.

So which one is accurate? Swicegood took that question to Statesville Police Chief Tom Anderson.

“That does not accurately reflect what's happening in Statesville,” Anderson told the newspaper.

“Anderson said there are discrepancies between the data the department submitted to the State Bureau of Investigation, which then submits it to the FBI. He disputes Statesville's ranking as the state's fourth most-dangerous city due to the way crimes are categorized by the state and by the FBI,” Swicegood continues in her article.

“For example, Anderson said, scooter thefts are listed as motor vehicle larcenies by his agency, but other agencies do not list scooter thefts in that manner. Also, he said, some agencies will lump a series of car break-ins, for example, into one report, but Statesville officers write individual reports for each break-in. That can skew numbers, Anderson said.”

According to the Uniform Crime Reports, there were 477 burglaries in 2013 in Statesville. But police department data indicates there were only 37, the article states.

“A burglary is a night-time break-in of an occupied home. It's a big deal. It's not just a property crime,” Anderson said.

Police officials in Salisbury had a similar response when asked about the survey, saying it does not mesh with what actual numbers reflect, and questioning how two surveys that claim to use the same information can reach very different conclusions.

The bottom line is that these surveys can create a lot of attention and people will frequently share them on social media, driving up traffic to the web site. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, media web sites like the one you're reading right now do it too, the difference is in how credible the information is in the first place.

In many cases the originator of the list has a vested interest in the outcome.  That doesn't automatically negate the accuracy of the information presented, but it does call for closer scrutiny.

Follow this link to read Donna Swicegood's article: