Burning the Mortgage?

Bloomberg says torchings of foreclosures are rising, with little evidence

We’d like to smoke out a Bloomberg story saying home arson is “surging” as a result of the wave of foreclosures.

It’s not even clear from its story that arson is surging, let alone that foreclosures have anything to do with it.

The idea is plausible—foreclosed-upon borrowers might want to torch their houses—but Bloomberg can’t prove it. The stats it cites are basically irrelevant. And it could be a little more careful with its language.

Let’s take a look:

The wire service cites numbers in Ohio and Nevada as examples of arson rising in hard-hit states and says home fires of all kinds hit a ten-year high, but these numbers are from 2006—before the housing bust really took hold, information we know Bloomberg knows because it says that’s the year prices hit an all-time high.

Bloomberg flags its implication of homeowner wrongdoing up high by quoting the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. And what does its spokesman say? That the arson rate follows foreclosure rates. As evidence, he says during the last housing bust arson rose to 116,600 cases in 1992 from 111,900 in 1990. That’s a whopping 4 percent—over two years. Get your hoses and fire extinguishers ready!

We’ve been on the lookout for stories that unfairly impugn borrowers after noticing a trend earlier this year. Bloomberg is just the latest—and to be fair, one of the more responsible—outlets to say arson is increasing because of foreclosure. ABC News posted a poor story (with four bylines, to boot) in February saying “some” homeowners were burning their houses to avoid foreclosure, citing two cases, one of which hasn’t been closed.

Right now the cases are just coincidences, but some worry the numbers will increase as more Americans find their dreams going up in smoke.

All righty, then! But ABC burned its own story—part of a wave of reports apparently sparked by a Coalition Against Insurance Fraud press release in January—by quoting (if you read that far down) the International Association of Arson Investigators saying:

“There are no statistics that a bleak economic condition causes a spike in arson,” Toscano said. “[However,] when economic conditions are such that they are now, people do commit arson for profit.”

Huh? So there aren’t any stats but we’re sure they do it anyway? Other arson-rising stories contradicted their own theses, too. Here’s MSN Money:

But John Hall, in charge of fire analysis and research at the 112-year-old independent National Fire Protection Association, sees no link between economic stress and arson.

“We have been collecting statistics for over 25 years, and there has never been a development in the economy that has shown a clear impact on arson,” Hall says.

And we can’t forget the august Los Angeles Times, which we noted in April wrote one of those cognitive-dissonance stories. It quoted the National Insurance Crime Bureau saying the trend doesn’t exist, then rationalized its story by saying industry organizations don’t want to inspire copycats by admitting it.

Bloomberg doesn’t step into this class of screw-ups, but it contributes to the problem with its terminology. Assuming that arson numbers increase along with the foreclosure rate, is that because of vengeful homeowners or because empty buildings attract criminals? Repeatedly saying “foreclosed homes” rather than vacant homes implies a motive where there may be none.

Nowhere does Bloomberg give us evidence that foreclosed homes are more likely to be burned than ones that are empty for other reasons.

The press should be careful not to perpetuate the meme of vengeful and criminal homeowners—unless it’s got real evidence.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.