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Public Opinion and Crime - Sources Of Information On Crime

media news crimes reported

Some facets of public opinion pertain to matters of preference or moral judgment (e.g., beliefs about appropriate penalties for crimes) and cannot be properly characterized as "right" or "wrong," accurate or inaccurate. In other instances, however, public opinion bears on objective characteristics of crime: Is crime increasing? Is my city a safe place? How many burglaries occurred last year? In such cases public perceptions can be compared with objective data to assess the accuracy of those perceptions. Comparisons of this sort are of particular interest to some criminologists, who worry that the general public may be misinformed about crime and suffer needless fear, or may be insufficiently afraid of what are in fact substantial risks (see Warr, 2000).

Where does the general public get its information about objective characteristics of crime, such as the risk of victimization, the geography of crime in their city, or the relative frequencies of different crimes? When the public is asked where they obtain most of their information about crime, the resounding answer is the mass media, especially news coverage of crime. Graber, for example, reported that 95 percent of respondents in her survey identified the media as their primary source of information on crime, although 38 percent cited other sources as well (conversations or, more rarely, personal experience). Skogan and Maxfield found that more than three-quarters of respondents in the three cities they surveyed reported watching or reading a crime story on the previous day (44 percent had read a newspaper crime story, 45 percent had watched a crime story on television, and 24 percent had done both). The mass media are thus a very powerful mechanism for amplifying criminal events. Information initially known only to a few can within hours become known to many thousands or millions.

If the public relies on the mass media for information about crime, how do the media depict crime? Numerous forms of distortion in news coverage of crime have been identified and documented, distortions that tend to exaggerate the frequency and the seriousness of crimes. In the real world, for example, crimes occur in inverse proportion to their seriousness; the more serious a crime, the less often it occurs. Thus, petty thefts occur by the millions, robberies by the hundreds of thousands, and homicides by the thousands. In choosing stories for print or broadcast, the primary selection criterion used by the news media is "newsworthiness," and a key element of newsworthiness is seriousness—the more serious a crime, the more likely it is to be reported. By using seriousness as a criterion, however, the media are most likely to report precisely those crimes that are least likely to occur to individuals (Warr, 1994).

This "mirror image" of crime depicted in the media results in an extraordinary emphasis on violent crime. Investigators in one study (Skogan and Maxfield) reported that homicides and attempted homicides amounted to one-half of all newspaper crime stories in the cities they examined, even though homicides are only a minute fraction of all crimes in our society. Furthermore, they found, the number of homicide stories reported in city newspapers did not closely match the actual homicide rates in those cities, suggesting that the amount of space devoted to crime has more to do with editors' decisions about reporting crime news than with the true crime rate itself.

News coverage of crime has been criticized on other grounds as well, including the practice of using crime news as "filler" when other news is slow, the use of crime news to attract larger audiences ("If it bleeds, it leads"), and an unfortunate tendency to report crime trends using numbers rather than rates, thereby ignoring changes in population. With regard to the latter issue, observe that it is entirely possible for the number of crimes in a city to increase over time even as the rate of crime decreases. All that is required is that the population grow at a faster rate than crime itself. This sort of elementary statistical reasoning often seems to be lost on crime reporters.

The fact that the media present a distorted image of crime is no guarantee, of course, that the public believes or heeds what is sees, hears, and reads. Measuring the impact of media coverage on public opinion is a daunting task because of the difficulty of isolating media messages on crime from other sources of information (conversations with family and neighbors, personal experience, rumor). Still, it is difficult to believe that the media have little or no effect on public perceptions when the public itself cites the media as their primary source of information on crime and spends so much time attuned to the media. In addition, what seems to be a common error on the part of the public—a tendency to exaggerate rare risks and underestimate common ones—precisely corresponds with the way those risks are reported in the mass media (Warr, 2000).

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