A typical example may be found in a Jan. 25 Houston Chronicle story titled, "Crime dips, but not everyone feels safe." The first third of the story "balances," in the journalistic lexicon, one neighbhood activist's complaint that police don't do enough in his neighborhood with aggregate data showing crime is declining, as though the two sources were of equivalent probative value. When the story finally quotes an academic expert, here's the spin he puts on it:
The statistics do suggest a downward trend, said Alex del Carmen, chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Arlington, but the picture the data provides is incomplete, with little insight into whether citizens feel safe.See how it works? If crime goes up, the media sell papers by hyping fear. But when it's down, we're told that "doesn't necessarily mean that citizens in Houston are safer." I sometimes wonder if there's any statistical result that the press wouldn't use to hype fear of crime. After all, people don't buy papers to read good news. And for TV news, of course, "if it bleeds, it leads."
"When we say crime stats are going down, it could also be that citizens are not reporting crime as much. It could also be that certain types of crimes are moving to other parts of the city or outside of the city," he said. "When we say crime is going down in the city of Houston, it doesn't necessarily mean that citizens in Houston are safer."
Professor del Carmen's suggestion that the public may not be "reporting crime as much" doesn't jibe with long-term trends from the best available data sources. The two major measures of US crime rates are Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), which reflect crimes actually reported to police, and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is a quite robust survey asking people whether they've been victimized by crime, whether or not it was reported, essentially estimating crime victimization based on a large sample. In general, the NCVS survey has consistently found that about half of all crimes go unreported when compared to the UCR data, a trend which hasn't changed much in recent years.
The latest NCVS survey (pdf) found the rate of violent-crime victimization (see the chart on p. 1) has declined by about 75% since 1993, tracking the decline in reported crimes in the UCR. It's true that the most recent NCVS reported a one-year increase in unreported burglaries and thefts. However, since 2002, total property crimes in the NCVS declined by 18% (see Table 4 on p. 4), with the rates of motor vehicle thefts down 45% and other thefts declining 19% over the same period. The rate of household burglaries in the NCVS declined mid-decade nationally, with a slight recent uptick bringing them back to 2002 levels in the most recent report. Still, by any available measure, both reported and unreported crime rates are at or near historic lows in most categories.
Which brings me to a related story from the BBC asking, "How unrealistic is murder on television?" It's not just the news media, after all, who hype crime for profit. The story began:
Murder happens a lot less in real life than on television.By contrast::
There were 636 killings in England and Wales in 2010-11 - that equates to 11.5 for every one million people - or a rate of 0.00115%.
The latest series of tongue-in-cheek detective show Midsomer Murders is drawing to a close. The murder rate in the fictional county of Midsomer has been estimated at 32 per million, in excess of the England and Wales figures.Moreover, "it's not just the sheer volume of fictional murders on television but their nature that diverges from reality." In particular:
In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher's sleepy home town of Cabot Cove has a rate of 1,490 murders per million.
The kind of "whodunit" type of murder shown on television is not the norm.The "stranger danger" hype is promoted by law enforcement, too, but no amount of police press conferences could influence public perception as much as the constant stream of dramatic portrayals in TV and film. Grits was particularly interested by the observation that past literary portrayals were less visceral and more nuanced than today, portraying a more diverse view of crime:
Shows like Dexter, Wire in the Blood, Cracker, Messiah and even CSI depict serial killers and "stranger" murders generally with a regularity far from reality.
"There is a huge fear of stranger murders, which is completely wrong and unrepresentative of real life," says [Crispian Strachan, former chief constable of Northumbria Police and now a tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology].
Detectives like Poirot and Miss Marple solved murders in a much more elegant fashion - often over tea and crumpets.
And there were detectives who didn't always trade in murder. Of the first 12 Sherlock Holmes short stories, only three revolve around murders.
But now death seems to dominate.Doesn't it, though?
A couple of years ago, my father startled me with a question: Are horrific murders and serial killers more common than in the past, or do we just hear about more of them because of the internet, cable news, etc.? I was floored by his perception because both the nation and Texas had witnessed an astonishing decline in murder rates over the prior two decades, but here was an intelligent, well-read lawyer under the impression that violent crime was worse than any time in his memory. In reality, crime rates haven't been as low as they are now since my father's childhood (though no one can explain exactly why).
And dear old Dad isn't alone. A 2011 Rasmussen poll found that "More adults than ever report that crime in their community has increased over the past year, and most think the continuing bad economy will cause the crime rate to rise even higher." In reality, though, crime continued to drop after the 2008 recession hit, plummeting to modern lows. So most adults believe something that is demonstrably false - that crime is increasing and the economic downturn made it worse.
Crime used to be "news," but now it's treated by the media mainly as entertainment. And as every entertainer knows, "the show must go on."