The New York Times published an article Sunday about Michael Brown, the black teenager shot dead Aug. 9 by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The piece, by John Eligon, offered the following synopsis of Brown’s “problems”:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
The description provoked criticism that the Times was depicting Brown unfairly. (The Times’s public editor commented on the article Monday.) Many people used social media to argue that the newspaper was misguided to equate certain behaviors that are common among young people in the United States with the notion of being “no angel.”
The data backs this point up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has, since 1990, conducted surveys as part of its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The 2013 survey asked 13,583 ninth- through 12th-graders whether they engaged in certain behaviors (Brown, 18 at the time of his death, was the same age as some of the oldest survey respondents). Here’s what students said when asked about the behaviors mentioned in the Times’s description of Brown:
‘Dabbled in drugs … ‘
Because the term “dabbled” doesn’t imply regular usage, lifetime rates are relevant here. Almost 41 percent of students said they had used marijuana one or more times in their lifetime. Almost 1 in 4 students had done so in the 30 days before the survey; that rate would translate to about 4.9 million high school students nationally. Other drugs were less prevalent. When asked whether they had used the drug at any point in their lives, 8.9 percent of students said they had used inhalants, 6.6 percent said they had used ecstasy, and 5.5 percent said they had used cocaine.
‘ … and alcohol’
Two-thirds of all respondents said they had consumed alcohol at least once in their lives. If “dabbled” suggests having consumed alcohol at least once in the past 30 days, then a third of high-schoolers dabbled in 2013. Eighteen-year-olds who have never drunk alcohol are in the minority.
‘At least one scuffle’
The CDC found that 1 in 3 young men had been in a physical fight one or more times in the 12 months before the survey.
The Department of Justice publishes FBI statistics on the prevalence of larceny (“unlawful taking”). The DOJ’s 2012 data, which includes attempted larceny, shows that nationwide, there were two larceny thefts for every 1,000 U.S. inhabitants.
But the term “larceny” is imprecise here. Brown was said to be “caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars” with a value of $48.99, according to police reports. In most states, including Missouri, that description would constitute a lesser crime of petit or petty theft, because the item is worth less than $500.
According to the FBI, shoplifting accounted for 18.6 percent of larceny crimes in 2010, and the average value of those thefts was $202. Rachel Shteir, head of dramaturgy at DePaul University and the author of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting,” thinks shoplifting could be far more prevalent than those figures suggest. In an excerpt of her book published by NPR, Shteir wrote:
According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), the number of American shoplifters is 27 million, or 9 percent of the total population. But a massive study of 40,093 Americans — the 2001 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) — found that 10 percent had a “lifetime prevalence” for it and 11 percent had shoplifted.
‘Taking to rapping’
The CDC didn’t ask respondents about their music taste. Its survey instead defines “risk behaviors” as things such as having unprotected sex or carrying weapons. Still, if rap music is problematic, then the United States has a very large problem on its hands. About 110 million rap tracks were purchased in 2013, representing 8.7 percent of all digital music sales, according to Nielsen.
Another line of criticism claimed that despite that the article was written by Eligon, an African-American journalist, the description of Brown represented racially biased reporting.
Understanding whether the U.S. news media systematically reports on individuals differently depending on their race is a complicated endeavor — not least because semantic analysis is prone to error. However, some academics, such as Robert M. Entman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, have dedicated themselves to the task. Reviewing the existing literature on the topic, Entman found:
- Whites are overrepresented as victims of violence and as law enforcers, and blacks are underrepresented in these sympathetic roles.
- Black defendants in one study were more likely to be shown in mug shots.
- Black victims of crimes are less likely to be covered by a newspaper than white victims.
Whatever the criticism of the Times piece in particular — that it was racially biased or simply unfair in highlighting behaviors that are prevalent nationwide — it’s clear Brown was not alone in his “problems.”