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468 - Crime Topography of San Francisco

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To my admittedly vague recollection, The Streets of San Francisco was a mid-Seventies tv series very appropriately named after its main character. I was too young to follow any of the cop show’s plot. Until a few moments ago, I didn’t even recall that its stars were a young Michael Douglas partnered with the eternally avuncular Karl Malden. But I do remember the car chases, mainly because they were set on the improbably-angled, gravity-defying streets of San Francisco.
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When I say remember, I exaggerate. Those car chases have melded into a single Generic San Francisco Car Chase, for which you need: several police cruisers, sirens wailing, in hot pursuit of a getaway vehicle (all cars preferably pre 1980); a route down precariously steep streets (rarely up, for obvious speed-related reasons); the cars giving chase in permanent near-collision with the cross-traffic on level avenues and bending their fenders in a constant bump and grind on roads not inclined to accommodate high speeds; and to top it all off, split-second views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, both parked on the glistening blue waters of the Bay below the city.
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San Francisco’s iconic topography – with grades of up to 31% –  is as much a tourist attraction as its cable cars or the sea lions at Fishermans’ Wharf. But the city’s hilliness is more than just ankle-biting eye-candy. Its elevation, mainly in the city’s centre, is responsible for a 20% variance in annual rainfall throughout its eastern and western precincts, with bay-fronted neighbourhoods in the east also significantly less cold, windy and foggy than those facing the ocean.
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These maps present San Franciscan peaks and troughs of a different, less savoury kind. Although the information they convey is as real as the city’s actual orography, these infographics express incidence of crime rather than elevation above sea level. By mimicking cartographic methods of height demarcation, the mapmaker has hit upon a visually very arresting method to frame raw crime statistics in a geographic context.
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These maps were made by Doug McCune, who plotted the 2009 data for eight different types of crime out on a map of San Francisco. Mr McCune produced two map versions for each type of crime, a satellite view and a bird’s eye view. The latter’s more slanted perspective works better for presenting ‘hilliness’.
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Mr McCune goes on to comment on some of the resulting crime topography of San Francisco, which I shall summarize here:
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  • Many maps peak in the Tenderloin District (in the north-east).
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  • Some crime is extremely concentrated (e.g. narcotics), others are more spread out (e.g. vehicle theft);
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  • Prostitution arrests mainly occur around Shotwell Street, one of the frankly quite numerous toponyms in San Francisco that can be interpreted in a lewd manner.
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  • A valley dividing the peaks in the Mission and the Tenderloin is the location of the 101 freeway.
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If only Messrs. Douglas and Malden had known about this back in the day…

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Many thanks to all who sent in these maps (found here on Mr McCune’s blog): Andrew M. Galleni, Geoffrey Engelstein, Brian Kavanaugh, John O’Brien, Jeff Crocombe, Kate Loux, Taed Wynnell, Kelley Ketchmark, Sarah Schoenfeldt, Elise K and Brian Ogilvie.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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