Wednesday, October 12, 2022

'Crime crisis' driven by the media not data

 Fox News contributor Gianno Caldwell caught up with Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) outside an elevator in the Capitol. His focus was simple: “We just want to talk about the crime crisis in America.” Nadler, who’d suggested that Caldwell contact his office, didn’t reply, reported the Washington Post.

Perhaps Nadler was stymied by the framing. Which “crime crisis” is that, exactly? In Nadler’s hometown of New York City, murder and shooting incidents are down relative to last year, though violent crime in general is up. Last year, the city saw lower crime across the board than two or three decades ago, though, again, it’s now up relative to 2020. Is that what Caldwell meant? Or did he mean something broader?

If so, I’d be interested to know what numbers he’s looking at. Data released by the FBI on suggested that violent crime nationally didn’t increase much in 2021 relative to 2020. That comports with recent figures from crime victimization data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which indicated that reported violent crime was flat in 2021 and down from before the pandemic.

As I noted when those BJS numbers were released, discussion of crime in the United States is hampered by broadly inconsistent and uneven reporting of crime data. Some jurisdictions, like New York or Los Angeles (where violent crime is essentially flat, year-over-year) report data regularly. The national measure compiled by the FBI has seen declining participation (thanks in part to a change in what it collects) even as it operates at a substantial delay.

What’s left, then, is largely anecdotal. Stories of violent incidents, always catnip for newscasts, are used to portray a sense of crime that may or may not comport with reality. And Fox News has been very active in trying to portray exactly that sense.

In 2018 and 2019, Fox News mentioned crime about as often in its broadcasts as its primary competitors, CNN and MSNBC. Then in 2020 — with Donald Trump up for reelection and riots following racial justice protests — mentions briefly climbed.

But that was nothing compared with the surge of mentions in 2021 and 2022, after President Biden was inaugurated. Last year, and so far this year, Fox News has mentioned crime twice as often as its competitors on average. It has talked about crime more often than abortion in every month but one — May, when the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade was released, not when it was actually overturned.

Republicans, a significant part of the Fox News audience, were more likely to say crime is a crisis, though 6 in 10 of Democrats said the same thing.

Again, crime is up over the past three years! The best available data, though, suggest violent crime isn’t up significantly since last year. In some places, in some categories, yes. But people also tend to overestimate both their own vulnerability to crime and the national level of crime. In August YouGov polling, people consistently viewed crime as a problem in the country, though not in their own communities.

The lack of data is an opportunity for those who might find it useful to suggest that crime is out of control. Though it’s hard to contextualize individual acts of criminality, it’s easy to cast those individual acts as representative of broader trends. Fox News and others in the conservative media were effective at portraying the protests during the summer of 2020 as incessantly violent and enormously damaging to a large number of major American cities over an extended period of time, even when that was easily disprovable. Now, with the midterms looming, Fox News is talking about crime more than ever.

Most Americans say there is a “crime crisis.” But what, exactly, are legislators like Nadler supposed to say about it in the absence of any understanding of what that “crisis” actually looks like? How do you counter an endless loop of criminal activity shown on television without knowing whether those crimes are anything more than sensationalism?

You don’t.

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