Editor ‘s note: A version of this article was sent as a letter to reporters and editors who cover crime.
My principle question is whether media is dismissive of crime and citizen fear of crime?
Has the crime discussion been corrupted by politics to the point where it’s impossible to candidly report crime topics?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. Post Master’s degree-Johns Hopkins University.
Dear Colleagues: There seems to be a disconnect as to media coverage of crime and fear.
Throughout the election, major newspapers and many criminologists insisted that crime was at historic lows. But Gallup stated that fear of crime was at a 15 year high.
Media sources offered articles and commentary dismissive of Gallup’s findings; how could fear be so high when crime was at historic lows?
Most insisted that crime was low based on comparisons to previous years and concurrently; crime was not increasing.
Based on the Department of Justice’s FBI (crimes reported to police) and National Crime Survey data, commentators were correct as to crime being at chronological lows, see http://www.crimeinamerica.net/crime-rates-united-states/.
At the same time, homicides and violent crime were going up in many (not all) American cities. It took the FBI’s release of annual crime statistics for 2015 indicating a rise in violent crime to put a partial end to the discussion.
Gallup Says That Crime is at Historic Highs
Then Gallup offered data stating that crime was at historic highs, which received few mentions in major media.
Per Gallup (November, 2016) Americans’ direct experience with crime is at a 16-year high, consistent with a gradual increase — from 22% in 2001 to 29% today — in the percentage saying that they or a household member was the victim of a robbery, vandalism or violent crime in the past year, see Gallup-Crime.
Per Gallup-household crime is at its highest point since 2001.
This is after Gallup offered another report on, “In U.S., Concern About Crime Climbs to a 15-Year High,” see Gallup-Concern.
Gallup previously stated that if cyber crimes were included, the household victimization rate would surge to 46% (November, 2014). If half of American households state that they are victims of crime, then there is little wonder about fear of crime.
But crime counts are moderated by the finding that personal crime (rather than household crime) is down, Overall, 16% of U.S. adults say that they were personally the victim of at least one crime in the past year, similar to the 17% found in 2015 and about the middle of the 14% to 19% range seen since 2001, see Gallup-Crime.
The index does not include two types of digital crimes that Gallup began measuring more recently — experiencing identity theft and having credit card information stolen. More Americans tend to report being victimized by these than by most conventional crimes. As Gallup reported last month, 27% of Americans say that they or someone in their household had information from a credit card stolen by computer hackers.
So we are back to my original question, is crime is at historic highs per Gallup or at historic lows per DOJ?
Incapable of Complex Discussions?
Crime and fear are complex topics filled with research or methodological complications, but I’m puzzled as to why one narrative seems to take prominence over another.
To this day, the majority of reporting remains that crime is historically down and citizen fear is irrational.
Has crime become politicized to a point where we are incapable of complex discussions? Did Donald Trump understand the concerns of Americans that were seemingly dismissed by the media and some within criminological community?
My guess is that media sources and many within the criminological community thought that candidate Trump was exploiting American fear of crime and refused to support that view. Regardless as to how America was suffering via rising crime and fear, they were not going to reinforce that narrative, thus reporting supported the notion that crime was decreasing and that fear was irrational.
For the record, I did not vote for Trump or Hillary, I voted twice for President Obama. This is not political commentary.
In this day and age of historic lows as to media trust, and discussions as to inaccurate news, is it reasonable to ask why we are not getting coverage of the questions I raise?
The criminological community is correct by stating that crime is historically down; we’ve had over two decades of nearly steady decreases.
But their dismissal of the rise in violent crime in late 2014, all of 2015 and the fact that it continues in 2016 is disturbing and leads me to suggest that accuracy is taking a back seat to politics.
With Gallup stating that there is a concurrent historical rise in fear and crime, and with reports from many (not all) cities that crime increases continue, it supports my notion that objective observations are becoming increasingly rare.
My guess is that politics did play a role in the discussions leading up to the election, and that politics will continue to interfere with objective reporting.
But the tide may be turning, the Washington Post just offered a series of articles on crime from a victim’s perspective, see Washington Post.
My message to the media? You can have coverage that embraces the complexity of multiple sources and points of view without compromising objectively. But to do that you need knowledgeable reporters and research staff who understand the data and who can see beyond those who seek to persuade through politics.
I recently offered three articles addressing these topics at Crime in America.Net:
Are Americans Wrong on Crime? http://www.crimeinamerica.net/2016/11/21/are-americans-wrong-on-crime/
Fear of Crime Increases in America? http://www.crimeinamerica.net/2016/11/28/fear-of-crime-increases-in-america/
Crime Increases in America Per Gallup, http://www.crimeinamerica.net/2016/11/30/crime-increases-in-america-per-gallup/
Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net
My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon