Friday, July 01, 2011

Public misinformed about crime thanks to media focus on sensational over substance

The Austin Statesman reports that:
The Austin Police Department this week joined with a national data-sharing website to give local residents a new tool for staying informed of crime in their neighborhoods.

Using RAIDS Online , a website whose name stands for Regional Analysis and Information Data Sharing, residents can view an interactive map of crimes across the city. Users can also sign up for crime alerts close to their addresses and submit anonymous tips to police.

By clicking "Analytics," users can access crime statistics, including the times of the day when crimes are most likely to happen. The data on the site goes back one year, and crimes are usually posted online within 30 to 36 hours of their occurrence.

Police Cmdr. Troy Gay said he hopes local residents will use the website to be informed of crimes around them and help police solve them.

"They can find out what's going on in their community and actually be part of the solution," he said. "If you know something, then report it."

For example, if someone gets a crime alert from RAIDS that their neighbor's house was broken into, and they saw a suspicious car in the area that day, they can use the website to report that information to police, Gay said.

The department also soon plans to launch an iPhone app version of the website, he said. Visit the website's Austin page at,tx.
Austin already had a fairly robust gadget compiled by a local group that provided basically the same information, if in not as slick a format. But just as with the private group, it's a little difficult for me to see how the average person would use this information. The neighborhood activist is the real constituency for this app, not potential crime victims, etc.. It may feel like it's giving a lot of information, but in most instances it's like handing someone a Rubix Cube for the first time that they puzzle at for hours. The difficulty level just to make sense of the information is high and because the array of potential uses for the data are limited, the satisfaction of doing so is pyrrhic; the next twist of the cube or spin of the globe can rapidly obsolete yesterday's analyses, as any crime analyst will attest.

One also thinks, "What an odd web rivalry!" Why would Austin PD enter a private partnership to perform a function that's redundant with ongoing work by a private group? Do they think the folks at are doing something incorrectly or does Austin PD just want to be the sole source of information on crime for the local media, who have lately recognized that they share the same interest in this data as the neighborhood activist, for mostly the same reasons. I suppose the ability to report crimes directly to police may be a beneficial aspect, particularly if there are smart-phone apps available and they spend money to promote it among the general public. Check back in a year or two to see if this function is widely used.

This refined ability to examine the micro - where crime and punishment become entertainment instead of "news" - can make us blind to macro-level changes. My father last year astutely asked me whether there was more crime now, particularly gruesome murders, or if there was just more media so the stuff you didn't hear about before now all gets dredged to the surface. From all available data, IMO the answer is: clearly the latter. "Index crimes" have been declining steadily, both nationally and in Texas, for more than a decade.

The ability to easily drill down to this level of detail to find gotcha-style sensationalizing stories explains a lot about misunderstandings about crime by the public. A recent 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." So most adults think something that is patently, demonstrably false - that crime is increasing where they live and that the economic downturn has boosted crime. I think that's because they were given a false impression by mainstream media crime coverage.

I wish the Rasmussen poll cross-tabbed to tell us how many who believed these things also think Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that 9/11 was an inside job, that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and other persistent, inexplicable and utterly wrong beliefs shared by wide swaths of Americans. OTOH, to judge by the programming these days on the (so-called) History Channel, one wonders if perhaps there isn't a category of Americans who simply believe things that are false and lack the intellectual curiosity to determine otherwise. Like those strange, conspiracy-theory promoting History Channel documentaries, hyping crime details without independent investigation is both flabbergastingly sensational but equally unenlightening. Ever-more dramatic media coverage of crime at the micro level without sufficient context fosters misunderstandings about crime rates and sentencing realities in the Big Picture among the general public. People think crime is rising because the story they heard on the news the other night was so awful! But that story was cherrypicked for its spectacular nature, not because it reveals some profound truth. And in the case of assessing crime trends, the media tactic obfuscates truth.

I'm all for maximizing public records, but this narrow sliver of information isn't among the most probative the agency could share, just the most potentially sensational. Its only constituencies, who are small in number but politically powerful, are the ones Krimelabb was servicing: media and neighborhood activists. I doubt, though, that the average citizen will ever find much use for it.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes the violence prone in our midst, all by themselves, provide the sensationalism. We now have many examples of violent flash mobs. When 40 or so of them come into a store and clean it out, some see that act as sensational. The racial attacks and the racial verbal aggression is seen by some as sensational just by its nature. We don't need the media to sensationalize these occurrences.

Unfortunately, these vivid displays are hard to ignore. Even some of those who make a career of arguing that they are innocent have noticed these sensational events. This is another reason to undermine eyewitness testimony. We like to believe that the witness is just seeing things but, try as we may, the flash mobs are hard to ignore. Even a few of those with advanced degrees have starting to notice.

Prison Doc said...

I agree that the decline of the History Channel et al is sad indeed, a hollow shell of its former self.

DEWEY said...

"one wonders if perhaps there isn't a category of Americans who simply believe things that are false and lack the intellectual curiosity to determine otherwise..."
Most of them watch Faux (sic) News.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the lawlessness in Mexico and the examples of brutality, I wonder if we in the US may experience this some day. Just a thought.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:07, yes some of the anecdotes lend themselves to the sensational. That's the point. By focusing just on anecdotes and ignoring actual data and crime trends, the media portrays crime as more prevalent than is actually the case. That's why the public thinks crime is increasing at a time when it's actually at a 40 year low, flash-mobs or no.

DEWEY, that's John Stewart's contention. I don't find the regular MSM to be any more reliable or less prone to the trends I'm describing than Fox. Daily newspapers and local TV stations are the biggest offenders.

john said...

You have to look at multiple "news" sources--ALL of which have their own agenda. You can't be everywhere, so you get the news from them. One problem is, little stations can't be everywhere, so they read the AP feed. If that's manipulated, then the lie grows.
And I agree the locals are bad, because they're sensitive to being scooped by other locals, etc. And they all want bigger hair and to move up the entertainment chain.

Anonymous said...

OK,off topic but, you opened the door ... I'll give you most of what you wrote but you lost me on O. How DO YOU KNOW he wasn't born in Kenya or anywhere else for that matter? It's been beaten to death but you find me something on his past, anything, school records, college/Univ., old g/f, why did he have to surrender his law license ... there are a whole bunch of un answered questions. I don't know where the arse was born but I do know he was adopted, legally, took up Indonesian citizenship, and that alone makes him ineligible

Anonymous said...

cheenna - you're an idiot - how in the world can you believe and repeat those lies -

Stephanie said...

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
- Soren Kieregaard

Anonymous said...

One reason progressives bemoan surveillance cameras is because what is caught on tape almost never agrees with what they say is the reality out there. Who are you going to believe, the ACLU or the lying camera?

Celtictexan said...

"Public misinformed about crime thanks to media focus on sensational over substance"

You mean the public is misinformed because of political correctness, dont you?

Celtictexan said...

Who are you going to believe, the ACLU or the lying camera?

Outstanding comment. So very true.

Tim said...

I don't think you could have asked for your comments to prove your point so succinctly. I actually wonder why we don't subsidize video game systems to Mexico. They seem to have done wonders here in the US.

I use spotcrime because it seems more up to date. I don't know if it actually is. Nearly half the crime in my "high crime" zip code is family violence. You're a creative thinker, I'd love to hear if you have any ideas on how as a society we can work on dealing with that.