Crime Rates at Odds with Public Perception

Data and Statistics

Despite the persistent drop in crime rates nationwide, a majority of Americans still believe that crime is higher than it was a year ago. According to a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of those surveyed believed crime is on the rise even though government statistics show serious crime has decreased almost every year since the mid-1990s.  The good news is that the margin of those who currently believe crime is up has declined from a high of 74% registered in 2009.  But the figures still point to a disturbing disconnect between perceptions of crime and the reality.

crime-rates-gallup-chart

One possible explanation for this disparity appears in a recent study on the relationship between people’s media consumption and their fear of crime. Analyzing data from the National Opinion Survey on Crime and Justice, Kenneth Dowler at California State University found that “viewing crime shows is significantly related to fear of crime and perceived police effectiveness.”  A 2003 study published in Journal of Communication found a strong correlation between viewership of local television news and perceptions of crime including the likelihood of victimization.  Noting the economic incentives for crime reporting (i.e. increased viewership and audience interest), the study authors noted “the focus of local television news on criminal violence may condition audiences to focus on crime and to ignore other problems that are as important but translate less readily to the television news format.”  Even a casual survey of local television newscasts offers compelling anecdotal evidence that most TV news outlets are guided by the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Two key takeaways from these findings: first, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies need to improve communicating the historic drop in crime rates that Americans are currently enjoying. The misperception that crime is rising instead of falling feeds a false narrative that our current criminal justice policies have not been successful.  It also further undermines public confidence in institutions that have successfully maintained public safety.   Second, the media needs to be reminded that individual instances of violence and victimizations featured in their headlines and newscasts are not representative of the broader trend toward decreased criminal activity.  What bleeds may lead, but it also misleads about where we’re going in the area of public safety.