Sunday, January 27, 2013

The show must go on: Hyping fear for profit in an era of declining crime

One of the reasons I began this blog was frustration with the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't nature of crime coverage in the mainstream media, particularly the time-honored practice of hyping fear to sell papers. If crime goes up, the media shout from the rooftops that the public is in grave danger, "read all about it." When it goes down, they tout the lurid details of the most sensational cases (e.g., the Casey Anthony trial) with little or no context, as Judge Nancy Gertner has effectively argued, and warn that the public doesn't "feel safe" despite the statistics. Such stories inevitably ignore that the media's skewed coverage is one of the greatest contributors to false perceptions about crime.

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.

"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."
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."

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.

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%.
By contrast::
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.

In Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher's sleepy home town of Cabot Cove has a rate of 1,490 murders per million.
Moreover, "it's not just the sheer volume of fictional murders on television but their nature that diverges from reality." In particular:
The kind of "whodunit" type of murder shown on television is not the norm.

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].
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:
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."


Anonymous said...

I think there is somewhat of a newsmedia-police industrial complex. In my small town the newspaper has really declined in readership and column inches, and they seem to make up for it but covering the front page with all local minor crime, turning page 1 into kind of a "Police Blotter" Improper actions by police and prosecutors virtually never appear in the local paper; we find out about them only in the "regional" news from our nearest urban paper.

Both police and the media have an interest in keeping crime as a growth industry.

Anonymous said...

Border Insecurity: Hidalgo County Texas Sheriff Claims Crime Rate Is Dropping, His Office Caught On Tape Faking Crime Stats

Anonymous said...

One crime that isn't down is drug crime - up 50% in the 2000s. And supposedly the war on drugs wasn't working - it doesn't seem the treatment, rehab and specialty court model is either.

Anonymous said...

The stats in Harris County will show a decrease in juvenile crime simply because the Annie Casey Foundation's JDAI movement has law enforcement officers not willing to even make the arrest knowing nothing will happen to the juveniles. I quit a long time ago trying to arrest juveniles for things like theft and burg hab cause the juvenile probation department won't even hold them. Dallas officers tell me the same thing.

FleaStiff said...

Of what possible relevance is the truth? All those drug cops, lawyers, judges, etc. need the war on drugs to continue.

too bad said...

Hyping crime has been extremely successful getting way more politicians elected than un-elected. It allows them to scare the shit out of everybody so they can peddle snakeoil. And damn if the public doesn't want the snake oil everytime.
Noble effort you are taking on but you will never in your or my lifetime see Texas lose it appetite for crime hype. Just look at the latest hype... "we must arm teachers."

Anonymous said...

Fascism has arrived in America wearing kevlar and badges while spouting "Protect and Defend" and quoting bible verses.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Scott.

Phillip Baker said...

Hallelujah and amen, 6:28. We've been fed a steady stream of fear for decades, causing us to trade the illusion of safety for our rights. Pious politicians drone on about those heroes who fought and died for our freedoms on one hand, while shredding the Bill of Rights with the other. And we let them.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

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."

Well Scott first let me say "Great Thread"

For once I agree pretty much with all the comments today.

Crime, especially murder is sensationalized to the point that the suspects become national , sometimes international celebrities for a week up to 2 or 3 years depending on how horrible the crime they were able to devise is. I truly feel that if we simply did not report stuff like that on the news it would quit happening after a while. I truly dont think that these people are going to go out and committ these bizzzare mass murders if they arent going to get dragged before the TV cameras and interviewed in jail and asked for interviews like they are celebrities. I think your Dad was right, as Dads usually are, at least mine is.

Quit reporting it and quit sensationalizing it and it will quietly fade into the sunset as a stupid period in American History

sunray's wench said...

Maybe we should be asking why Americans in particular seem to believe the media sensationalism?

rodsmith said...

that's easy sunray.

It is a direct result of 60 years of dumbing down of america via the public school system.

The govt wanted a population of idiots who would accept every word they spoke as coming from god and BY GOD they got it!

Stephanie said...

And in another email I received today from The Crime Report...

An award-winning television production company is searching for established and experienced crime experts for an exciting new documentary series about homicide investigations.
We’re interested in speaking to experienced detectives, private investigators, criminal prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, criminologists, forensic scientists, crime historians, etc. All candidates should be passionate, credible, and thoroughly immersed in a particular area of forensics, criminology, or crime scene investigation.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed that with the downturn in the economy, the illegals left and the crime went down? Coincidence? I think not, just my observation.

When they come back just watch and see if the crime doesn't rise again. As long as this administration continues to claim there is no problem on the border it will keep happening.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:13, you're clueless. A) Crime was declining even more rapidly at illegal immigration's height, and B) by any measure immigrants - legal and not - commit crimes at substantially lower rates than US citizens.

Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Anonymous said...

While I was working at TYC, the percentages of Hispanic inmates seemed to go up every year. Many inmates were born in Mexico (we had a copy of their birth certificate in their file). When their relatives visited, we checked their picture IDs. Many of them (the relatives' IDs) were Mexican IDs.

Anonymous said...

Our prisons are filled with Mexican gangs (the Mexican Mafia is only one of these - there are many more). Then there are the Central American gangs who are often ever more vicious.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:22, nobody said immigrant criminals don't exist, just that immigrants commit crimes at substantially lower rates than US citizens.

Similarly, 7:54, saying it don't make it true. There's no doubt Latino prison gangs exist but the prisons are "filled" with people who overwhelmingly have no security threat group affiliation.

protector said...

One way to tackle the issue and concerns about crime is to encourage law enforcement to be transparent and timely with crime data. My company, SpotCrime, has worked for years to encourage Harris County to provide crime data publicly without restrictions. The current paid vendor has lengthy terms and restrictions on how the data can be shared while they share the data out of state with You can see Harris County Crime data two links above the girl-of-the-day link on Tinbu. My point here is that why does a Pensacola company get better access to crime data than local press.
In fairness, Harris County has started to release data after a five year letter campaign on SpotCrime's part. Ideally, everyone should have open table access to this data at the same rate that Tinbu gets it.
Crime data transparency may not be the panacea for all these concerns of public perception, but I believe it is a move in the right direction.

Colin Drane - Founder