Why People Believe Crime is Going Up

Why People Believe Crime is Going Up July 25, 2016

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.


New York magazine asks some experts for an explanation of that disconnect:

In his crunching of the numbers around Americans’ perception of crime, Pew Research Center founding director Andrew Kohut made the polite academic equivalent of a shruggie: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV, and political rhetoric.” In an email with Science of Us, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who specializes in policing and crime, was more direct, saying that now that crime rates are so low, people have “very little direct experience of crime,” so their perceptions are mainly shaped by news media and entertainment. “Both of these present profoundly inaccurate pictures of the amount of serious crime,” he writes.”The mainstream media continue to live by if it bleeds it leads. I’ve found that if the TV news doesn’t have a horrific local crime story they just pick one up from another city.” Entertainment is just as bad, he says, or worse: Crime dramas continue to captivate, and, according to Vitale, these often feature horrific criminals like serial killers and child abductors. “This creates a constant background noise,” he says, where various crimes are “everywhere and horrific and incomprehensible in nature.” More banal, poverty-driven crime is rarely featured on the news or in broadcast procedurals, he says, aside from ride-along reality-TV crime shows like COPS, which are shot from the “perspective of the always moral and moralizing police officer.” Indeed, separate research indicates that blacks are finally being less overrepresented as the perpetrators of crimes on broadcast news, while Latinos are being overrepresented as undocumented immigrants and Muslims are “greatly overrepresented as terrorists on network and cable news programs.”

This is crucial, since as cultural critic Walter Lippman argued in Public Opinion in 1922, people don’t rely on critical thinking or have ready access to facts to make sense of their world; they lean on the “pictures in their heads,” informed by the media they’re exposed to.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

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