Crime is down. Police brutality is down. Racist policing is down. Why do most Americans believe the opposite?

Crime has been dropping for three decades straight now, but about 60-70% of Americans have been misled into thinking that crime is increasing this whole time. I feel a lot safer nowadays partly because I pay attention to statistics and perhaps partly because I live in a very low crime area now. But I lived in Chicago during the peak of the crime wave in the 1990s and when I go back to Chicago, the whole city seems more tranquil and I don’t know if I just think of it that way because I know the statistics or because I can really see the visible signs of the radical transformation of the city that I think I can see.

But another reason I feel safer than the median American is that I never watch TV news. TV news is a waste of time because it focuses on drama and neglects information. With the rise of ubiquitous video cameras, TV stations have more and more access to dramatic images of crime than ever before even though the crime rate is half of what it used to be, so TV stations are showing more and more dramatic videos of crime scenes even as the crime rate falls just because someone is always present with a cellphone or a security camera to provide the news stations with exciting videos.

Similarly the perception that police brutality is on the rise has no basis in statistics. Ironically, the black lives matter movement has probably arisen at the time when police violence against African-Americans is lower than ever before in American history. This movement is also partly a product of ubiquitous cellphone videos with the additional power that social media has brought to marginalized people because it allows anyone to broadcast videos. Social media algorithms then push the most dramatic and emotionally engaging content (much like TV news) which includes crimes like police brutality. Given what little we know about police brutality (and it is a terrible shame that the police have neglected to collect statistics about it) the evidence suggests that it too is much less of a problem today than it used to be. It is still a problem and it needs to be fixed, but I have no doubt that it was worse near the peak of the crime wave in the 1990s when there were more arrests and more stressful interactions between the police and civilians and police brutality towards African-Americans was undoubtedly still much worse yet in the 1960s (and earlier) when American police officers were more likely to be active members of white supremacist organizations and police departments tried to squash protests in favor of basic civil rights. Most evidence suggests that racism has been declining in America since at least the 1960s and the police force is no doubt changing along with the rest of American society.

Weihua Lee did some excellent reporting about the media and perceptions of crime in America:

Fox News has spent more time covering violent crime than CNN and MSNBC combined, according to an analysis of data compiled by the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer.

Since the police killing of George Floyd, Fox News has leaned into a narrative of looting and property destruction, filling its segments with headlines like “Portland Plagued by Violent Clashes, Riots” and “Businesses Experience Worst Looting in Decades.”

While CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of violence and crime also spiked after the Floyd protests took off in May, it has dropped significantly since then.

In the 2000s, cable and local TV news became more popular, contributing to a shift in public opinion on crime. Before the early 2000s, more and more people believed there were fewer crimes in the United States, according to Gallup polling data, which matched the truth — that crime rates were decreasing. However, that trend was completely reversed in 2001, and not much has changed since: As crime continues to decrease, more people believe the opposite is true — that crime is up.

Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the rise of police television shows, like NCIS and CSI, and how much airtime local TV news gives to violent crime has fed the discrepancy.

Romer… said producers at local TV news stations face daily pressure to fill the evening report with different beats, like sports, local government, …and crime — and the idea is to capture viewers’ attention.

“No matter what is going on, there’s going to be a crime in the news region of the news station,” Romer said. “It can be hit-and-run, it can be shooting — the crime news hole stays consistent over time. Stations get that’s an attention-getter. The crime rates could be changing dramatically, but they wouldn’t know it.”

Bias in reporting and story selection can also plague how crime is portrayed in local TV news, Romer said. For example, there has historically been emphasis on stories where the suspect is Black and the victim is white, even though Black men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. This sways public opinion, too.

Posted in Violence & Peace

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