Chicago’s suit against the DOJ: When spin supplants data
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Chicago’s suit against the DOJ: When spin supplants data

August 9, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Attorney General responds to Chicago lawsuit on immigration policy

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions commented on a federal lawsuit filed against him by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The suit, filed on Aug. 7, asks the court to stop the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from enforcing a new immigration policy requiring cities to comply with certain conditions in order to receive federal law enforcement funding.

The new requirements include sharing information on immigration status with federal officials, giving 48-hours notice before releasing people with possible immigration violations, and giving federal officials access to detention facilities. According to a July 25 DOJ announcement, cities must comply with the conditions in order to continue receiving federal funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant.

In response to the lawsuit, Sessions said in a statement on Monday that Chicago officials are “protecting criminal aliens” and that the city needed more laws to reduce its crime rate. Regarding the new policy, Emanuel has said, “Chicago will not let our residents have their fundamental rights isolated and violated.”

Chicago does not currently comply with the new DOJ requirements (See Context section for more). In past years, the city has received federal funding from the Byrne grant, and it would provide the city with $3.2 million this year. The Chicago Tribune stated the city’s budget for 2017 is $9.8 billion. Outlets also reported that Chicago uses the grant money to purchase radios, police vehicles and SWAT equipment.

In the lawsuit, the city asks the court to issue an order before Sept. 5, which is the grant application deadline.

Distortion Highlights

  • Spin is often the hook that gets us to keep reading past the headlines.
  • Yet it can come at a cost: it supplants factual information that would help us understand the story.
  • Today’s coverage of Chicago’s lawsuit against the DOJ is a case in point.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Scathing Rebuke

    In his scathing rebuke, Mr. Sessions noted Chicago’s high murder rate and said the city’s leaders, to “a degree perhaps unsurpassed by any other jurisdiction,” have “chosen deliberately and intentionally to adopt a policy that obstructs this country’s lawful immigration system.” (The New York Times)

  • Very Vocal Critic

    But Emanuel, a very vocal critic of Sessions’ threats to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, said he refuses to choose between immigrant rights and having a well-funded police department. (Fox News)

  • Beleaguered

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sued the Trump administration Monday over its threat to withhold funds from sanctuary cities, prompting one official to charge Emanuel is more concerned about protecting illegal immigrants than legal residents of his beleaguered city. (Fox News)

  • More dangerous

    They say Chicago police officers make no inquiries about immigration status because doing so might fracture residents’ trust of the police and discourage those here illegally from reporting crimes or cooperating as witnesses, making the streets more dangerous. (The New York Times)

  • Crackdown

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Sunday the city will file a federal lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s use of federal grant money as a way to force local authorities to cooperate with a crackdown on illegal immigration. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Showdown

    The showdown over so-called sanctuary cities has been months in the making, as some local governments resist federal calls to hold people in jail when asked to do so by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Threaten

    The Trump administration has tried to strong-arm some jurisdictions into reversing their sanctuary policies by threatening to cut off millions of dollars in federal funds. (Fox News)
    Emanuel often expresses his opposition to Trump’s immigration views and in the past year backed other successful efforts to strengthen the Welcoming City Ordinance, create a legal fund to assist immigrants threatened with deportation and start developing a municipal ID program aimed mostly at helping immigrants without documentation make their way in the city. (Chicago Tribune)

Spin can be a swindler of sorts, playing on our focus and imagination. As our editor-in-chief noted in a recent interview on Fox, “These are words that are not measurable, they’re not based on data or facts — they’re emotional, and they get us riled up.” By drawing attention to the sensationalism, spin can easily distract from the facts and the real issues at hand. It’s often the case that when reporting uses more spin, if you look at what’s presented, there’s a lot of missing data.

Today’s coverage of the statements from Chicago’s mayor and the attorney general illustrates this tendency in media. Even the exchange was spun, with Fox News and The Wall Street Journal calling it a “showdown,” and The New York Times saying it’s an “escalation.” Of the four outlets, the Times and Chicago Tribune were the most spun, receiving 90 percent and 75 percent spin ratings, respectively. Here are some other colorful examples:

What the Trump administration and the DOJ are reportedly doing with this policy

Fox says Emanuel sees the policy as “slap[ping] unfair conditions” on the Byrne grant. The Journal and Fox respectively say the department is using federal grant money “as a way to force” or “strong-arm” some jurisdictions into cooperating. Three of the outlets we looked at write that the administration is using the policy as a “threat.”

A change in policy is a change in policy — nothing more. It’s either lawful or constitutional, or it’s not, and that’s for the courts to decide, not the media. Even if it turns out that Emanuel is correct in that this policy violates parts of the constitution, it’d prove the policy was inadequate or illegal, not a “threat.”

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 38% Spun

  • 57% Spun

  • 75% Spun

  • 90% Spun

What the two sides said, and what the media added to it

Granted, the sources cited on both sides of the issue use spin in their own comments. For example, the Tribune cites one of Chicago’s attorneys describing Washington as using “rhetoric” and “threats,” and “breeding a culture and a climate of fear” in Chicago. Two outlets cite Sessions saying officials in Chicago “have demonstrated an open hostility” to the change in policy and are “protecting criminal aliens who prey on their own residents.” How much measurable data is presented in these arguments? None.

Just because our politicians set the example doesn’t mean the media must follow, but in this case it did. In particular, two outlets use spin to describe Session’s rebuttal. The Tribune says he was “stepping up his rhetoric” and that his words were “harsh,” while the Times said he “scold[ed]” and “struck back” at Emanuel. They sure sound like fighting words, but they don’t inform much.

The reported status of crime in Chicago

This point, although also spun, differs from the above two because there’s actual data to compare against, at least in part. Here’s what two outlets and their sources say about Chicago: it’s “beleaguered” and has “sky-high crime stats” (Fox), and its street violence is “horrific,” it has “endemic gun and gang violence” and a “persistently high murder rate” (the Times). These vague and dramatic terms are problematic because they can alarm people while providing no specifics.

Now to the missing data.

While readers get caught up in the political drama, the relevant questions can get overlooked. The DOJ says there’s a correlation between crime and sanctuary cities, and that its change in policy is designed to address it. What’s the evidence of this connection between criminal violence and undocumented immigrants? The outlets don’t provide data to examine this. In fact, this is the only data on crime in Chicago included across the four outlets:

1. Last year, more people in Chicago were murdered, compared to Los Angeles and New York City. (Note that this doesn’t compare Chicago to other cities with potentially higher crime rates, whether they’re considered a sanctuary city or not.)

2. “According to the Chicago Police Department, between Jan. 1 and July 30, there have been 400 homicides in the city – a 3 percent increase from 2016. There have also been 1,683 ‘shooting incidents’ recorded during the same time period, which marks a 13 percent decrease from the previous year.” (Fox News) The Times also cites “more than” 400 people. Again, no data here about immigrants and nonimmigrants.

Another relevant question that gets lost in the mix is whether the federal grants Chicago wants can actually remedy the violence.

In the past, Chicago has used the money to purchase police vehicles, radios and SWAT equipment. These tools of law enforcement may help control crime in the short term, but can they ultimately solve it?

As long as we’re riled up with spin, we may never sufficiently explore these questions.


FOX News

“The Justice Department quickly responded, taking Emanuel to task for not paying more attention to Chicago’s sky-high crime stats.”

The DOJ released statements about the lawsuit, disagreeing and referencing Chicago’s crime rate.

The New York Times

“The pointed exchange was an escalation in the struggle over federal funding and sanctuary cities, but also in a continuing back-and-forth between the White House and Chicago over the city’s endemic gun and gang violence.”

Chicago has received federal funding from the Byrne grant in past years. Chicago had “more than” 400 homicides this year through July 31.

The New York Times

“But the litigation comes at a complicated time for Chicago, which has struggled with a persistently high murder rate, strained relations between residents and the police, and frequent jabs from Mr. Trump, who has threatened to ‘send in the Feds’ if local officials cannot tamp down the bloodshed.”

Chicago filed a lawsuit against Sessions. The city recorded more than 400 homicides from Jan. 1 to July 31. Trump has said he might “send in the Feds” in relation to Chicago crime.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Chicago has a high murder rate. (The New York Times)

The lack of context to accompany this statement may suggest Chicago’s murder rate is unequivocally “high,” which may misrepresent the data.

If we compare Chicago’s 2016 murder statistics with the previous year’s, (762 versus 496) a 54 percent increase may be considered “high.” If we adjust the murder rate based on population density, Chicago ranks eighth among the 2016 murder rates of 20 major cities, according to data compiled by The Trace. That same data shows Chicago’s per capita murder rate of 27.9 is also below the 20-state per-capita average of 28.3 (the per-capita rate is the number of murders per 100,000 people).

When looking at data on murder rates, context, time and population may change the way people perceive such data and the cities with which it’s associated.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Vague and exaggerated description of Chicago crime.

Calling a city “crime-ridden” suggests it’s rampant with crime. Wait, that’s spin too, but it makes a point: how much crime does it take to be “crime-ridden”? And how do you feel about visiting Chicago having read this headline? Spin can entertain, but it can also negatively affect people and their perceptions.

Dual drama: Both the Times and Breitbart dramatize Sessions’ response to the lawsuit. The terms “scolding” and “firing back” are both spun, both are slanted with a certain angle, and both are two sides of the same coin. The truth is, federal, state and city officials disagree on policy at times. Do we need to dramatize it?


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune suggest Emanuel is right for filing a lawsuit in response to the DOJ’s new requirements because they’re unlawful and unconstitutional. Fox supports the opposite perspective, suggesting Chicago is solely to blame for its crime rates.
  • Chicago has “sky-high crime stats,” and the new policies may help address the violence.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • The legality of the policies may be determined by a court of law and, as an effect, will elucidate the validity of each argument. Also, there’s shared responsibility in the situation, and this is something the media doesn’t mention. For instance, Chicago’s officials and residents have responsibility for the existence of crime, and the federal government participates as well, whether it withholds federal funding or not.  
  • The outcome of the lawsuit may be helpful in determining the path forward for both the federal government and sanctuary cities, but it may not address the basic problem of violence. The independent news organization The Trace reports that Chicago’s homicide rate in 2016 was 27.9 percent per capita, which ranks it 8th out of the 20 cities with the most homicides. St. Louis, Missouri isn’t a sanctuary city, and had a higher murder rate, in which its 188 murders equalled the rate of 59.3% per capita. So are sanctuary cities the problem with respect to violent crime? Income levels could be a more significant indicator of violence than immigration status. The problem of crime may not be addressed by new immigration policy.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Chicago’s position on the new policy

The lawsuit claims the new conditions are “unlawful and unconstitutional,” according to the Chicago Tribune. It states that unlimited facility access would affect police department practices and its release of detainees, and says that “commandeering” local government functions is a violation of the 10th Amendment. The suit alleges it’s a 4th Amendment violation to hold someone for 48 hours without a warrant or probable cause indicating the person committed a crime. The suit also says the DOJ does not have the authority to withhold Byrne grant funding.

Chicago has a “Welcoming City Ordinance,” which the lawsuit says “promotes public safety by ensuring that no city resident or visitor, regardless of immigration status, is afraid to cooperate with law enforcement.” The city ordinance bars Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials from accessing people in custody, using police facilities for interviews and investigations, and talking to or questioning on-duty officers before a detainee is released from custody. The Tribune says ICE officials are allowed to access immigrants suspected of illegal U.S. entry who also have criminal convictions, criminal charges, criminal warrants, or are believed to be gang members.

The amendments cited in the lawsuiit

Chicago’s lawsuit against the DOJ cites violations of two U.S. Constitutional Amendments: the 4th and the 10th. Below are those amendments.

Amendment 4: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Cornell Law School says this amendment “protects against arbitrary arrests,” and is the “basis of the law regarding search warrants, stop-and-frisk, safety inspections, wiretaps, and other forms of surveillance,” as well as other laws relating to privacy.

Amendment 10: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

According to Cornell Law School, this amendment defines the relationship between federal and state governments, including matters relating to law enforcement, taxes, wage rates and personal information.