Why it’s a problem: I often talk about framing in news media, i.e. how the decisions about what facts and perspectives that journalists include (and exclude) when writing a story often reveal their agendas. This article from The New York Times is a case study in bad faith framing.

The authors open by making an exhibit of several horrifying acts of violence that are meant to grab the reader’s attention and exploit their anxieties. As the article progresses, the authors only begrudgingly allow some key statistics to trickle in. For example, they initially claim that there were 130 violent acts committed by unhoused people with mental illness in “recent years,” but then we learn that the 94 substantiated cases that could be attributed to “breakdowns of the city’s social safety net” actually occurred over the past decade.

To put this in perspective, that’s up to 13 violent acts per year in New York City that were committed by unhoused people with mental illness on average compared to 370.4 murders committed on average per year in New York City during the past ten years (2012-2022). In the chart below, I also show the estimated numbers of murders committed by NYPD during the same time frame. The average number of murders committed by NYPD (7.6 per year) is about the same as the number of violent acts committed by unhoused people with mental illness (13 per year), but we never read articles in The New York Times calling for police abolition or major reform of law enforcement.

Chart description: A chart that shows three separate lines. The red line indicates the numbers of murders that occurred in New York City each year during the past decade. The blue line represents the numbers of murders committed by NYPD per year. And the black line shows the average number of violent acts committed by unhoused people with mental illness during the past decade. Data on total murders in New York City from Wikipedia. Data on police killings in New York City for 2012 from Wikipedia; data for 2013-2015 from Mapping Police Violence project; data for 2016-2022 from The Washington Post.

The legal scholar and civil rights advocate, Alec Karakatsanis, has often pointed out the bad faith framing in New York Times crime reporting, and this article commits much of the same ableism and journalistic malpractice that Karakatsanis has criticized in the past. As in previous Times reporting, the article “does not mention affordable housing, poverty, inequality, real estate developers, or government policies that created or that could fix homelessness,” and instead points the blame at deficiencies in the city’s mental health services, as if this one thing can fix the others.

It’s a little known fact that some unhoused people commit violence precisely because they know that the only way they can receive food and shelter is by escalating violence and going to jail. So while the article is correct that the city is failing unhoused people, the authors conveniently do not call for every person to receive permanent housing and food security, but only “treatment” that is often coercive and often harmful. To make food and housing conditional on a person’s compliance with psychiatric treatment, which is essentially what prisons are for many, is a human rights violation.

As Karakatsanis writes, “One of the most alarming of the many common types of contemporary U.S. liberal news story is the article about ‘homelessness’ that doesn’t talk about the material economic conditions that cause it. It’s a new kind of liberal ‘think piece‘ almost surgically designed to prevent people from thinking about structural inequality.”

These days, almost every article in a major news publication about “violent mentally ill people” comes with a little paragraph like the one in this New York Times article that says “Violent attacks by homeless, mentally ill people are relatively rare. In fact, mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than to commit one.” But that’s not the message that people will receive when they read these articles, and maybe that’s why these disclaimers are often subtlety buried in the text.

Ask yourself, if The New York Times’ intent was to publish an article advocating for unhoused people with mental illness, would they really spend the entire article spotlighting violent acts committed by unhoused people, which the authors acknowledge is a rare occurrence, or would it have made more sense to write about the violence and abuse that unhoused people experience? Which angle incites fear, and which angle implores compassion?

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