The Trail of Misinformation About Arizona Kidnappings

A couple of years ago, police, politicians and media claimed loudly that Phoenix, Arizona was quickly becoming the kidnapping capital of America and rivaled Mexico City in kidnappings.

The implications were clear.  The drug war had come north and the government should pour millions of dollars into stopping the violence.

The problem is, the police department’s data is wrong.  This is a great case for teachers to point to as a reason journalists should be skeptical of claims until they have looked at the data for themselves. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that serves as the United States’ representative to Interpol, could confirm that Phoenix has the second-highest frequency of kidnapping cases worldwide.

Politifact questioned the data in 2010. 

Phoenix, Arizona, I’m told, is now the No. 2 kidnapping capital in the world, right behind Mexico City,” he said. “That’s unacceptable in America. We understand. We in Texas understand the frustrations people feel in Arizona.”

McCain’s office didn’t immediately respond to our query, but he’s made the claim before — and so have at least 20 news organizations, including the Associated Press, The Arizona Republic and United Press International.

Far as we could tell, ABC News broke the story, reporting on Feb. 11, 2009: “Phoenix, Arizona, has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City and over 370 cases last year alone.”

Some media outlets attributed the news to ABC, while others just said Phoenix was “known as” the No. 2 kidnapping capital. The Los Angeles Times more specifically reported that Phoenix “police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports” in 2008 and that they estimate “twice that number go unreported,” according to a Feb. 12, 2009, article.

But there’s a hitch: None of the stories says how the kidnapping ranking was reached. Also, while all the stories specify the number of kidnappings that have occurred in Phoenix since 2008, none says how many kidnappings were reported in other cities.

Over the last year , a Phoenix TV reporter, Dave Biscobing, has found the police department’s own data is wrong.


The police counted cases that were not kidnappings and other cases that didn’t happen in Phoenix.  ABC15 investigation found nearly 40% of cases originally reported as kidnappings in 2008 weren’t kidnappings.

So the police department went back and took a look and, amazingly, said yes the data was wrong, in fact there were MORE kidnappings than they thought. The new count is “668 kidnappings in 2008,” almost double the 358 the city had reported earlier. See police department’s new data.

But given the department’s track record, the TV station says there is reason to believe the cops may be “double dipping” and counting some of the cases on the books more than once.  Eventually the police chief resigned over the controversy.

The unraveling

It all starts with this list .

Provided by Phoenix Police, it’s every report that the department counted as a kidnapping in 2008. Add them up, and there are a total of 358.

Here’s a list of more than 20 of the most questionable kidnapping reports . Every one of these was counted as a kidnapping in 2008. And you can check them yourself. Just look at the report number and date at the top of the page and then find it on the list above.


NBC, ‘Meet the Press’ transcript for June 27, 2010

ABC News, Kidnapping capital of the U.S.A.; Washington too concerned with al Qaeda terrorists to care, officials say, Feb. 11, 2009

The Albuquerque Journal, Phoenix named kidnap capital of U.S., Feb. 11, 2009

Los Angeles Times, Phoenix, kidnap-for-ransom capital, Feb. 12, 2009

Latina, Phoenix, Arizona: Kidnapping capital of the U.S.A., Feb. 18, 2009

The Arizona Republic, Phoenix police battle wave of abductions, Feb. 15, 2009

United Press International, Phoenix police tackle kidnappings, Feb. 15, 2009

Dallas Morning News, Arizona misguided, but fears of residents aren’t, May 4, 2010

The Washington Post, Kidnapped by the cartels, March 22, 2009

The Washington Post, McCain gets political win on border troops, May 25, 2010

Associated Press, Phoenix police fight surge in kidnappings; Most are drug-related, police say, but there is concern that innocent people could become targets, May 9, 2009

E-mail interview with Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence, Stratfor, June 15, 2010


Join Al Tompkins and Les Rose for Power Reporting

You GOTTA be here at Poynter for Power Reporting April 16-20, 2012.
Join me and CBS Photojournalist Les Rose for an amazing week of writing, storytelling, photojournalism, VJ, MMJ training plus get feedback on your work. We will spend focused energy on ethical decision-making and how to tap databases and online resources to find stories and make the assignment desk love you. APPLY NOW

Watch the video: (click the image)

Investigative Reporter Tells First-Person Story

I can’t think of many local TV reporters who are as honored or respected as Stuart Watson (WCNC Charlotte.) So when I heard he produced a first-person story that had a consumer angle, I was intrigued.

The story is about the life and death of his parents.  They died hours apart, both had Alzheimer’s. Take a look at the story and I will raise some questions at the below the link.

-How did the “first-person” nature of this story affect you?  Is it appropriate for journalists to tell stories about themselves or their own families?  When would it be inappropriate?

-Were you surprised by the consumer report nature of this piece?

-Like Stuart, I also was recently surprised by the cost of placing an obit in a newspaper.  Why is it important to people to have these notices in the paper when they now have free online alternatives?  Is it just “for the old folks” that we do this?


A Neighborhood of Love: Valentine Day

In the next 48 hours you will see a lot of lame stories about love and Valentine’s Day.  Then, the lucky ones will see this one.  A piece about a culture of love.  Here is Boyd Huppert and Jonathan Malat to tell the story.

-How did the “love seat” idea strike you?
-Was there any need to explain what they were doing with the seat?
-The man whose wife lives with Alzheimer’s is deep within the story. Is that the right place? Where would it be different if that had been at the top? What about the middle surrounded by couples still together. Putting him where Boyd and Jonathan did allows him to stand alone in the piece, add some stark reality. The most power part of the story, to me, comes when he says loves grows deeper when you face a tragedy like this.
-I do wonder how, living in a neighborhood where long marriages are the norm, how that influences(d) couples. Is there a way to encourage a culture of marriage? What would you find in their families? Did they pass it on? Is is not the same story, but I would be interested enough to ask.
-Imagine you want to turn this into a web interactive-extend the story beyond this story. What could you do? I would start with a map, allow people to enter the number of years they have been married on the map of the Twin Cities and see what we come up with. Maybe drop colored pins sorted by decades or something.)
-Years ago I saw a story that was the opposite of this. John Larson walked through a courthouse in Oklahoma to find every single person he encountered in the marriage license office, and even in divorce court, every clerk and every lawyer and even the judge had been touched by divorce, either their own (some multiple times) or their children.

The Man Who Lived in a Hole

Larry Hatteberg (KAKE TV Wichita)  is, in my view, one of the great storytellers in local television-and he has been for going on 40 years. Lots of th pieces he shoots and edits himself.

I saw this story maybe 10 years ago and thought then it was one of the most haunting and surprising pieces I have ever seen.  I want to share it with you.  Then I will dissect it a little after you watch it.

I like how this story challenges all of our assumptions about people who do not fit our expectations of how to live life.

I like how Larry and photojournalist Paul Beam show respect for Ernie.

I like the natural sound, the unhurried pace of the story.

There are some huge surprises placed exactly where they should have been.  Beyond the house being a hole, the big surprises are the airplane and his quotation of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The airplane tells us Ernie is not a dummy.  He has been places and done things. His thoughts about freedom and even bathing show us he knows what he is doing is out of line with normal.

I appreciate how the story does not force us to feel anything.  Of course we worry about Ernie’s health and safety. Of course you want to know if somebody is looking in on him.  What about his family?  That may be another story for another day.  This one is just perfect as it is.  It is not for everybody, I suspect, but it is for me.


Postscript:  Ernie died about 6 months after the story aired. They found his body on one of the tree covered paths he walked every day.  He was debt free, paid for his groceries by cash. By all accounts he was happy and others had the good sense to let him life life his own way.



What Diversity Looks Like in an Everyday TV Story

Let’s see if you can figure out what it is I love about this story from CBS Evening News Tuesday. Watch the video then read below.

This story is a model for how to “normalize” people who journalists usually are put in little boxes. When was the last time you say a blind trucking company executive? I cannot recall the last time I saw any blind person talking about ANYTHING on TV except blindness. It is as if blind people have nothing to say about politics, air pollution or gas prices. The story doesn’t even say the man is blind because it is not about that.

Then the female landscape company executive comes along. My goodness you mean we can show smart women running businesses who can talk about something other than being a women in business? This is wonderful.

Add to it that the journalist is a black man and WOW we have proof, journalists can show the world as it really is- diverse populations of people doing normal stuff.

BRAVO. Now go give it a try. Find a person with disabilities who talks about about something other than disabilities. Find a same sex couple talking about something other than same marriage issues.
You get the idea. It is about being authentic. When we get to that, we really have found diverse ways of doing journalism.

What Does Pinterest Mean for Journalists?

Ignore at your GREAT peril in 2012.
With 10 million unique users, it’s grown faster than any other standalone site in history:

Visits to Pinterest took off in the last half of 2011, according to this chart from Experian Hitwise.

“These digital, visual pinboards had almost 32 million visits in November, and traffic is about 40 times higher than six months ago, according to Experian Hitwise. Pinterest is now the No. 7 social networking site by visits, ahead of MySpace and Google+.” (source:

Jeff Sonderman explains the buzz:

Boards and pins

Design-related images posted to Pinterest recently.

The main elements of Pinterest are the “boards” — virtual corkboards — and the “pins” you stick in them. A pin includes a photo (or video) with a caption, and can link to a source website. Each user (they call themselves “pinners”) can create several boards on different subjects, and people can choose to “follow” (as on Twitter) their favorite pinners.

How information spreads

Like a retweet on Twitter or a reblog on Tumblr, Pinterest users can “repin” someone else’s item to their own boards. Multiple repins enable an item to spread virally through a network.

What’s it good for?

Pinterest is all about visual expression. It’s a way to show, not just tell.

It’s also another tool to curate the Web, to gather images and ideas from many sources and put them together in a bundle that expresses a style, personality or viewpoint on a particular subject.

Here is some help from Rob Quigley at UT Austin on what it could mean to journalists/journalism. (Click on image)

Al’s X-Ray Viewing of Three Local TV Investigations

WTHR’s Bob Segall is, without a doubt, one of America’s best local investigative reporters.  He has a wall full of national awards including journalism’s biggest prizes to show for it.

This new story he just aired a a great example of why he is so honored.

Watch the piece about how children, even infants, are having their identities stolen and the the after-effects trail these folks for decades. It costs them thousands of dollars and wrecks their credit. Click on the graphic to watch.

There is a LOT to like about this piece.

-Bob gets RIGHT TO the story.  The piece starts with the baby pictures, and the conflict/tension builds right away.  There is no wasting my time and running in place.  Great stories get moving.

-There is no scary or emotional music. Bob avoids subjective adjectives like amazing, tragic and awful. The problem he is showing us is bad enough without the journalist adding to it for loaded adjectives.

-We see two victims, one young and one grown up.  Brilliant. It shows us the problems don’t end with childhood, they can follow you through life. It also shows that this is hardly isolated.  One victim would have been easy to write off as unusual.

-The station wasn’t satisfied with a living room interview.  They followed the boy to hockey practice.  Seeing the subject in more than one setting gives us the idea the station invested some time to know the subject of the story. They rode in the woman’s car with her, not just satisfied to get a sit-down interview.

-The station showed the problem then found a solution. That is full-service reporting.

-The station tried to hold somebody accountable. We viewers hope they will keep trying.  I appreciate that it was not all focused on how hard the station tried to track down the bad guy. Many stations would have opened the story with the bad guy, but that would be a mistake because that part of the story never resolves itself.

-I am left with a big question however.  If it is so easy for the credit companies to clean up the mess, how come the woman is still having problems and is paying such high interest? Her problem is not fixed.

The Building Materials Story

This story is from the Fox station in Minneapolis.  It is about how houses used to be built with heavier materials and now that builders use lighter weight materials, house fires may be more hazardous.  The station sets out to show how much faster the lighter materials burn. Pay attention to the production techniques the station uses. Let’s discuss that and more after the piece. Click on the graphic to watch.

I want to say from the outset that Jeff Baillon is a wonderful reporter, one of the best local reporters in the country,  and I have been a fan of his for years. This is an important topic and is well worth the time the station invested.  Let me peck away at this story all the same:

-What’s with all of the flaming story credits and the flaming time fonts? The credits distract me from what the reporter is saying.

-In my view, the story is so strong that the hyped up production of the foreground flames only detract from the piece.  Do we really need fake flames?  Nix them.

-This music is strange.  It has a sort of oriental feel. It has nothing to do with the story. Nix it.

-The story takes too long to get rolling. Contrast this to the WTHR credit theft story opening.

-The station made a big commitment to the photography-GREAT.  But they use a technique that I question.  They use the camera shutter speed to exaggerate the flames. (learn more about shutter speed in video)  Photographers sometimes do this in rain or snow to show you the individual drops or flakes.  It is a production technique that is not unethical but at minimum I found it distracting and I might argue was meant to make the flames look worse than they were. In fairness, the station used the same techniques for both burns.

-In my view, the station could have moved on from the fire test to explore HOW the codes were changed. Who watered them down?

-Do insurance companies care if you use heavier materials in construction? How much more expensive would that be?

-I appreciate the sprinkler section of the story but at four thousand dollars that is an expensive solution.  Is it more expensive than heavy wood would be?

-While I believe the story is an accurate representation of the issue, I would feel a lot more confident if we could find any other laboratory records of similar findings done in lab conditions with repeated results.  This burn could have been affected by a lot of things, a change in wind, humidity, or even whether the initial burn began exactly the same way with the same kind of sofa.  Again, I believe the experiment was accurate enough to show me what they showed me but I would like to know there is more data to support the theory.  If there isn’t that alone would be interesting that nobody else has tested this.   (note-Jeff responded saying:  “Al, I always appreciate your analysis. There have been scientific tests done regarding the flamability of these materials. UL labs did an extensive experiment which supports everything we demonstrated in the story. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to add a line about that in the piece.”)

WUSA’s Teen Drinking Project

WUSA in D.C. has launched a big teen drinking project that includes some interesting elements.  It also includes some things that make me wince a little.

Here is the opus story.  An eye-opening piece with lots of nice nuggets in it. Pay attention to the closing standup and we will kick it around after the piece.  Click on the graphic to watch:

-Once again we have a strong open once we get to the video but what’s with that music?

-I appreciate the reporter pointing out what is happening in the video. The red stuff on the steps is not blood. The reporter tells us about the parent who makes the kid apologize.  We learn that one parent asks his kid why he didn’t run. WOW.  Those are great details that I would call “telling details.”

-I appreciate that the reporter points out this is not one neighborhood but could be anywhere.

-I would have liked to have seen a snippet of the Facebook chatter to show me what it looks like when the call goes out to party someplace.

-The station does a nice job of raising a bigger issue in followup stories about what obligation police have to tell schools when a kid has been arrested away from school and after hours. And the station talks with a principal to learn how schools think about this.  There is a lot more meat on that bone.  I also wonder what affect an arrest like might have on college plans.  Does it show up anywhere?  Are there lawyers who focus their practice on getting kids off these charges? How do courts look at these cases? What is the outcome of cases that go to court involving the parents who encourage these parties?

-What do you think of the reporter going “first-person” in the close of her live shot, saying she just could not cover another teen DUI without trying to do something about it?  I have an issue with journalists going on personal crusades. The story is a powerful one.  Just tell it.

The station also has a strange commentary about viewers who are critical of the station’s coverage.  It is a sort of TV beat-down of viewers who disagree. I have to say I have never seen anything quite like that.