Fear of Crime

In the suburbs, all is quiet. Dogs aren’t barking, dark figures are not lurking in backyards, sirens are not wailing through the desolate streets. Yet every house has a security alarm, a tall iron fence, and a guard dog. Police crawl through the streets, stopping suspicious-looking cars on the main drag, to the relieved applause of suburban residents. Those who can’t take the pressure move to gated communities, where rent-a-cops guard their children. What is going on here? What has created such a war zone of terror-stricken, irrational citizenry?

If it bleeds, it leads

Most people have never even punched anyone, let alone experienced violent crime firsthand. Yet the general fear of crime among Americans has risen stadily over the years, even as the actual crime rates have fallen steadily over the 1990’s. Some point the blame directly at our main sources of information about the world– the mass media. The fact that so much of our television, newspaper and magazine coverage is devoted to crime is bound to have an effect on our views and perceptions of crime risk.

In fact, between 1990-97, national network news coverage of crime has fully doubled. On these networks crime stories have been presented more than any other type of story, with business and economy coverage coming in a distant second. Consistently high ratings push along this trend; if people didn’t want coverage of crime, the argument goes, then why do they watch it?

Telivision: Most Guilty

Although all media are guilty of shining too many spotlights on crime, especially the rarely occurring violent crimes, it is television that deserves the most attack. The television in the average household is on more than seven hours a day. In that time, news programs bleat frantic bulletins about abducted children, convicted murders, violent gangs. Reality-crime shows underscore the message further, re-enacting the cries of the helpless victim at the moment of revenge. Television can do something that the printed word cannot: it can make crime look real and immediate, all in the comfort of one’s home.

The fact is, Americans get most of their information from television. Research has shown that, the more people believe the crime information presented on television is credible, the more fearful they are, the more likely they are to overestimate crime rates, and the more likely they are to favor Draconian measures against criminals.

And it’s not just the news that has this effect; popular programs like America’s Most Wanted, Cops, and LAPD: Life on the Beat also contribute to the fear of crime. These shows take crime coverage one step further, acting as storytellers of death and modern danger. They are a hybrid of news and entertainment, and they can take the goriest of both worlds: facts and dramatic techniques like creepy music and dark background sets. They emphasize the randomness and pervasiveness of crime, and underscore the message that if you’re not scared now, you’re just not paying attention.

Television has neither the time nor the inclination to probe deeper into the social and economic causes of crime, preferring instead topics that can be neatly summed up in under one minute, or dramatized and exaggerated in cop shows. Television news (as well as the print media) may occasionally do a feature on the larger causes of crime, but these are hardly adequate compared to the hours of random criminals that appear out of nowhere and are headed for the slammer.

Protection at a price

Of course this story wouldn’t be complete without an accounting of the opportunists who know when to pounce on a rising tide of fear about crime. Politicians, for example, proclaim themselves “tough on crime in a dying society” to appeal to scared voters. Those who think they can vote their fears away encourage repressive and ineffectual tactics like three-strikes and the death penalty. The industries that rely on crime also support these politicians. The gun industry, the security guard industry, and the prison industry all have grown rapidly in recent years, thanks to the wave of fear.

Responsible media NOW!

The media-fueled rhetoric of fear is dangerous. It makes people less tolerant, more uneasy of others not like themselves. It makes people invite police intrusion into private lives in the hopes that it will sustain order. It makes people welcome closed circuit cameras on the street, with police watching on screens down at the station. It makes people breathe easier when cops stop any “suspicious” person walking down Main Street and run an ID check.

No matter that crime rates have been falling steadily. Disporportionate media coverage leads to a highly distorted view of actual crime. Until the media take responsibility for portraying crime levels accurately, it will be almost impossible to make real progress on reducing crime.