7 Fake News Tricks In KOMO's 'Seattle Is Dying'

KOMO, the Sinclair-owned, local ABC affiliate, released a documentary hosted by Eric Johnson, entitled Seattle Is Dying. Its basic thesis:

Homeless people are mentally disturbed and often violent drug addicts. It can all go away if Seattle went back to the good ole’ days and “let cops do their jobs.” (Imprison the homeless.)

A pretty standard conservative narrative.

I reject that thesis. Others have written in more detail about why you should too—here, here, and here. (I don’t share all the views in those articles, but they offer interesting perspectives.) Also, one of the “homeless” people shown in the doc isn’t actually homeless and is doing a little better in affordable housing (—great piece by David Korman for Crosscut)

What I’m going to focus on are the fake news techniques I saw in this doc. I used to write and produce national cable news for some big networks, I know how to fake it.

1 - False Dramatic Tone


You can add drama to any story using tone and word choice. This is basic fake news for sure.

Johnson narrates his piece with an ominous voice. It’s a bit heavy-handed for a documentary, especially when not backed up by evidence.

Then there is word choice: “embarrassing.” Johnson and various interviewees use that word repeatedly, as if those of us with homes feel embarrassed about having to live near so much homelessness.

1. He offers no proof that any significant percentage of the population feels embarrassed or scared by the homelessness in Seattle. He only offers anecdotes.

2. If you have a place to live and feel embarrassed by the existence of suffering in your community, that’s something you need to work on.

We should be embarrassed by our collective failure to end the suffering, not because people from other cities will judge us as individuals for living near homelessness.

2 - Sample Size

In order to make a general claim about a situation, you need to find some systematic and objective measure to base the claim on. But if you want something to fit your narrative, you pick a small sample.

Seattle Lawyer and former Public Safety Advisor to Mayor Ed Murray Scott Lindsay

Seattle Lawyer and former Public Safety Advisor to Mayor Ed Murray Scott Lindsay

Johnson interviews Scott Lindsay, an attorney and public safety advisor for former Mayor Ed Murray. Lindsay compiled a list of 100 or so homeless people who on average committed 30+ crimes here in Seattle. I don't doubt the veracity of the list and I find it troubling. We do need to examine why repeat offenders are left to recommit crimes, some of which are serious and violent.

But 100 people? There are more than 12,000 homeless in Seattle. The 100 “frequent fliers”  on this list represents less than .83% of the homeless population. Therefore, Lindsay’s list provides no basis to claim the homeless represent a systemic risk to public safety.

3 - Bad Data

When you compare stats across different cities, you need to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Johnson and KOMO did not.

One of the few examples of apparently objective data used by Johnson in this piece is a graph that compares property crime rates in different major cities. In 2017, New York was lowest on this list with 1448 per 100,000 people. Seattle was second highest next to SF with 5258 and 6168 respectively.

Well ok so now he’s got a rock solid point right?

Fake News Bar Graph

Fake News Bar Graph


Because I’ve worked in a newsroom, I instantly knew that Johnson got that data from The FBI. (It says so on the graphic too) BUT, and here is the kicker: it seems there is no systematic standard for collecting and reporting the data. The FBI publishes this warning:

“ It is important for users of UCR data, including federal data, to avoid drawing such simplistic conclusions as one area is safer than another … based solely on crime counts.”

Johnson and KOMO used this data in the way the source said not to. Oops.

4. - Oops, I Did It Again Too

The funny thing about bad data is that you can make it dance around to almost any beat you like based on how you approach it.

Johnson played with your heart…

Johnson played with your heart…

Johnson played with your heart and I’m about to play with it one more time. His piece claims people feel unsafe in Seattle because of homelessness. But is Seattle unsafe?

Well, using that same FBI data—aka using the Johnson/KOMO approach—I computed (and if I’m wrong, someone let me know and I’ll correct it) the violent crime rate for Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, per 100,000 residents.

My results:

  1. NYC - 540

  2. SEA - 633

  3. LA - 762

  4. SF - 788

Seattle is relatively safer based on my list right? Uh… we don’t really know. Remember, my list also has MINIMAL VALUE according to the source of the information. The broad point is that Johnson claims our city is dying using problematic comparisons and data. That’s fake news.

For the record, I even emailed the FBI about the way Johnson used their data. If they respond to me, I’ll let you know what they say.  

5 - The Thin Blue Line

Cops have a tough job, but they are not social scientists

Cops have a tough job, but they are not social scientists

Johnson exploits the fears and concerns of actual SPD officers (one was retired). While I believe the anecdotes from cops speak to legitimate concerns of rank and file officers, I don’t believe their insights offer much value in diagnosing the homelessness crisis. They know how to police. They likely don’t know how to solve systemic homelessness, which is more related to affordability. Using cops to spin a narrative is unfair to the officers and is standard, red meat, fake news.

Also…the SPD’s history of systematic abuse is so egregious that the department currently operates under a federal consent decree. How could Johnson skip this?(Yes, the SPD is technically compliant now, but the decree remains in effect as far as I understand it. Someone, please let me know if I’ve mischaracterized this.)

That omission is fake news AF.

(Some of the cops Johnson shows in action demonstrated commendable patience and poise.)

6 - Man On The Streets*

Been in the summer? The market is bursting with fresh produce and tourists

Been in the summer? The market is bursting with fresh produce and tourists

Johnson asked some tourists out in the streets of Seattle if they liked the homelessness they saw. Shockingly, the visiting interviewees did not. This technique is called “man on the street” interviewing. (Yes, it’s gendered. The industry needs a new term. Maybe “people on the street?” POS? haha)

The thing about MOS interviews is that if you ask enough people, you find the answer your narrative needs. That answer puts a human face to your story. It’s fair game if you can back it up with objective evidence.

As you can tell by now, I believe Johnson repeatedly failed to use objective evidence. At the end of this MOS segment, he rhetorically asks in the narration if these tourists would come back to Seattle given all the homelessness. The weird part is that he doesn’t include any answers from the people he interviewed. So maybe they would come back? Regardless, the answer he wanted—“No way”—was out there, but oddly not in his piece.

*That’s just lazy fake news.

7: - Talking Heads

Talking heads are experts that give your piece credibility. Like MOSs, you can find a talking head to say almost anything. Without matching the talking head with objective info, you’re making fake news.

Johnson ends the piece by showing the state of Rhode Island’s success in treating incarcerated opioid-addicted patients in prison. He’s basically arguing that if we just locked up homeless drug abusers and treated them, our homelessness problem would go away.  

A couple things about this final act stand out to me.

Johnson had a chance to include this piece of more objective evidence, but didn’t.

Johnson had a chance to include this piece of more objective evidence, but didn’t.

1. The only people who speak in favor of the RI program—the talking heads —are either representatives of the non-profit that administers the drug treatment or the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. I don’t doubt their words, but their claims should be verified by a source without skin in the game.

In fact, I did just that. In April 2018, long before this piece aired, an article in the academic journal JAMA Psychiatry presented preliminary findings that inmates in the program used by the RI DOC had a reduced overdose fatality rate once out of prison. That is unabashedly great news. Why this objective source was omitted from the piece is beyond me. It took me five seconds to google it.

If that window didn’t have bars, if it were in an affordable housing unit instead of a prison…well, we’d have a solution.

If that window didn’t have bars, if it were in an affordable housing unit instead of a prison…well, we’d have a solution.

2. If RI’s program is the answer to our problem in Seattle… well, the homeless would need to be addicted to opioids en masse right? You can't treat someone who isn’t using.

The piece leaves the viewer with the impression that most of Seattle’s homeless are addicted and that the problem is one and the same. Except there is no proof of this. Look, substance abuse is absolutely a dire problem for many homeless people and I think they deserve effective drug treatment. But you can’t just say that drug use is synonymous with homelessness without any objective data. Therefore, Johnson’s argument for locking up the homeless to treat their substance abuse is fake news.

Nathan Chaffetz1 Comment