U.S. News


Is the Media Altering Our Perceptions of Crime?

Lately, police forces in the United States have been under scrutiny. Media reports abound relating to police brutality, discrimination, and self-defense. There is frequent coverage of high-speed chases, assaults, and burglaries. In listening to and reading all of these reports about police and crime in the media, it is not hard to conclude that crime is on the rise everywhere and that the United States is no longer a safe place and allowing children to play in the front yard is risky.

Is significant growth of the crime rate nationwide a reality as the media would lead us to believe?

Approximately 81 percent of Americans access some form of media daily for news coverage. Extended access to media coverage, especially with the development of online news broadcasting less than a decade ago, has made it possible for us to have hour by hour (and in some cases minute by minute) updates around the clock. We learn about incidents of crime as they are happening and form our opinions before the official data has even been released.

However, our perceptions of crime are not necessarily any more accurate.

Psychologists use the term “backfire effect,” which concludes that humans tend to rate familiar statements as more likely to be true than unfamiliar ones. When we regularly listen to crime reports from news organizations they become familiar and accepted. Couple this with the natural fear of crime and the belief that crime is frequent and rising, leads us to draw conclusions.

According to a study completed by a group of criminal justice professors at Portland State University, local news stations in Portland – where the study was focused – are more likely to devote coverage to “individual criminal events, particularly crimes that involve atypical victims and offenders or severe acts of violence.” The occasional ‘big’ crime within the city receives extensive airtime.

People are going to hear about the incident multiple times, probably over a period of months. This has been shown to lead to disproportionate and inaccurate views of actual crime rates within the city.

The study also states that although most of the individuals surveyed in the study felt individual criminal events were well reported by the news, most other facets of crime reporting were not. These areas included risk factors for victimization, underlying causes of crime, overall crime tends, and police/community efforts to reduce crime.

Many of these long-term trends and police efforts to reduce the frequency of crime have begun to make a significant difference despite the fact that the number of police officers has declined notably in recent years as a result of budget cuts associated with the economic recession.

Statistics released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 2013 show a consistent decrease in crime including violent crime across the nation down by 4.4 percent. Significant drops in crime were reported in almost every measured crime category from property crimes (down 4.1 percent) to burglary, auto theft, and arson.

Perhaps the largest drop in crime has been reported in major cities since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of homicides investigated in New York City dropped by 85 percent. In both Chicago and Detroit, cities known for their high rates of violence and crime, 2014 proved to be a record year. Record low that is. Neither city had seen a lower number of homicides and violent crime since the early 1970s. The takeaway message from all of these statistics?

The conclusion to draw is that the United States is safer now than it has been at any point in the last 40 years. The fact of the matter is that most law abiding citizens are unlikely to experience unlawful offenses.

The media does provide a great source of information. However, it is essential to recognize that it does have some level of power over our perceptions and we must look for facts before jumping to conclusions. After all, informed citizens are essential to a healthy government.