Media’s prime-time crime spree hides real statistics — violence in U.S. is down

Monday, November 23, 1998

Violent crime declined for the sixth year in a row and now is at its lowest
rate since 1987, according to a report released this weekend by the Justice
Department. Big news story, right? Well, not quite.

Chances are that you won't find this information as a major story on the
front page of your favorite newspaper or leading off the local or network
newscasts. Those prime spots are reserved for news about real crimes as
opposed to news about abstract statistics that often get in the way of a
good story, not to mention some great footage of guts and gurneys, blood
and bodies.

Despite the fact that crime has been steadily decreasing in recent years,
the majority of Americans still think crime and violence in our society is
on the increase. Why is that?

Blame it on the press and its tendency to lead if it bleeds, to emphasize
the crime over the context, and to ignore or downplay the good news.

Here are the headlines from this weekend's report:

  • The nation's murder rate dropped to its lowest level in three
    decades, falling 8.1% in the past year.
  • Teen-age homicides dropped 16%, the fourth year of decline.
  • Overall crime was 7% lower than 1993.
  • Robbery was down 7.8%.
  • Aggravated assault was down 2.3%.
  • Rape was down 1.1%.

There is all sorts of speculation about the importance of these decreases,
what caused them, and whether further decreases can be expected. That is
another story. Today, the story is that crime has gone down, not up —
despite the public perception.

Crime in any amount is a legitimate social concern and deserving of
significant, sustained coverage. But most of the press just can't seem to
get it right. In their just-published report, Indictment: The News Media & the Criminal Justice System,
authors Wallace Westfeldt and Tom Wicker concluded that too often
journalists overuse unidentified sources and leaks, report trials the same
way they report sports, fail to explain the legal process, get facts wrong,
and label constitutional rights as “technicalities.”

“Newspaper and television reports on crime are the most serious cause of
exaggerated public fears,” Westfeldt and Wicker report.

Patrick O'Driscoll writes in USA TODAY: “The closest brush most
Americans have with crime is a daily occurrence: They turn on their TV

Network coverage of murder rose 336% from 1990 to 1995, according to the
Center for Media and Public Affairs (if you include the O.J. case, it's up
1,352%). A survey of local TV newscasts in March revealed that crime took
up 27% of air time, double that of any other category of news.

Pervasive coverage is mistaken for pervasive reality.

Ask most anyone, and they will tell you that crime and violence on
television is a major factor in their belief that crime is on the increase.
What's worse is that many people and public officials go one step beyond
that to say that crime and violence in the media is a cause, rather than a
reflection, of crime and violence in our society.

Despite the lack of logic in that argument (if crime and violence on TV is
increasing, and there is a cause-and-effect relationship, wouldn't real
crime be increasing?), policy makers have used it in their quest for quick
fixes: Blame it on the media.

So the media's general approach to crime news results in misperceptions and
exaggeration of the problem, which leads to bad public policy, which at the
least wastes time and resources and at the worst masks or exacerbates the

The failure of the media to put things in perspective or context has
serious consequences.

In 42 states, more and more people carry handguns to protect themselves.
More people cower behind locked, double-locked and triple-locked doors in
gated communities. More and more firms are making fortunes on home and car
security systems.

That's why we now have the federal sentencing guidelines,
three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, and the V-chip legislation.

With these developments, we've crossed significant rational and
constitutional lines and delayed the time when we'll come to grips with the
real causes of crime and violence in our society: poverty, guns, drugs,
gangs and other social ills.

In the meantime, the media do violence to the facts, the people do violence
to the perception, and public officials do violence to both reason and the

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the media coverage of violence
affecting our children. Four times this past year, normally quiet school
campuses have been shattered with shooting violence. We pray that that is
it, that there won't be anymore. But should another such horror come
along, the headlines will be large and the TV coverage continuous.

Let's just hope that a few facts pry their way into that coverage. For

  • Kids face one chance in a million of being killed at school.
  • The assault rate in school is the same today as it was in 1976.
  • 99% of children's deaths occur away from school and the peak times for
    those deaths are evenings, weekends and vacation periods.
  • And while 11 young people were killed in those four schoolyard
    shootings over a period of several months, that many kids are killed every
    two days by their parents or caregivers.

A few facts like that do not diminish the tragedy, but they just might help
us put them into perspective and temper our responses with a little bit of

Paul McMasters may be reached at