It’s a crime
Citizens’ perception of crime is affected by disproportionate reporting
December 10, 2020, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: December 10, 2020, 4:53 pm
In a rural Georgia community that has never seen a Black Lives Matter protest but is filled with Trump signs, a helicopter flew over Chris Richardson’s house. Worried it was police chasing “rioters” from the BLM movement, a neighbour called Richardson. She thought the protesters were out to get her.
Turns out, it was a medical helicopter.
Richardson grew up in Toronto. He studied journalism at Ryerson University and got his Ph.D. in media studies at the University of Western Ontario. He now lives and teaches in the small town of Young Harris, Georgia.
The author of Covering Canadian Crime: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Question, Richardson believes how much crime news is reported can shift how safe we feel. His neighbour, he says, is an example of this. Her reaction is an “indication of the level of fear and sensationalism perpetuated in a lot of the news sources that people are getting in the U.S.”
Think of it this way: when you hear a bang, do you think fireworks or gunshot? The answer could be a product of disproportionate reporting.
The decline of crime
Most Canadians, in every region of the country, believe that crime is increasing. Most Canadians are wrong.
From 1962 to 1991 crime was on the rise in Canada, but since then it’s been on a steady decline.
Crime fell more than 50 per cent between 1991 and 2014. Between 2015 and 2018 it dropped 17 per cent.
The more crime we consume the more we believe that it is everywhere, even our own backyard. We don’t want anything to do with it, but we still check in – more than we should. Crime has given us a break, but we’re still hanging on like a clingy ex.
Like Canada, crime rates have fallen in the U.S. Like Canadians, Americans believe crime is on the rise. Only 11 per cent of Americans know better.
What are newsrooms not telling us? Or is it that they’re telling us too much?
We can’t get enough
Crime stories are a win-win. Readers love to read them, and many journalists love to write them. We consume true crime like we consume a guilty pleasure reality TV show.
“People don’t have any idea how much crime there is in reality,” says Dan Romer, the research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “because they just see a constant stream of it night after night.”
Disproportionate crime coverage has real-life side effects. Even though crime has gone down, gun use has gone up. The more the media shows guns, Romer says, the more people want to arm themselves.
Americans bought 1.92 million guns in just the month of September 2020 alone. A 67 per cent increase from the previous September.
It doesn’t matter how much crime is happening near you. Thanks especially to local television news’ dedication to crime, Romer says we will always be exposed. Worry sets in and we start locking our doors, gravitating more and more to the violence on screen.
Broadcasting for the public
If you’ve lived in Austin, Texas you might have seen Kate Weidaw on your TV. Viewers would recognize her too in San Francisco, Richmond, and Albany. Weidaw was a TV journalist across the U.S. for 20 years.
TV and print reporters don’t always find stories the same way. One difference is consultants. TV consultants help stations decide what stories to air. In the U.S., what is seen on TV news is heavily based on consultant research.
That includes crime. According to Weidaw, “Lots and lots and lots.”
Violent and rare crimes like murders get more airtime on local television than crimes like property and assault. Why is this? What viewers want to see on local television news is stories about “keeping you and your family safe,” says Weidaw. This usually ends up being more and more and more crime.
How a newscast frames and presents stories can sway an audience to think that there’s more crime than there actually is.
There are also many crime news stories because of local station competition. If you’re not covering flashing lights and sirens, people will go to another station to find out what’s going on.
In 1995, 82 per cent of CBC and 89 per cent of CTV homicide news stories covered random murders. Only 15 per cent of murders in Canada are committed by a stranger.
Weidaw left her job as a news anchor at KXAN in Austin in 2014. She didn’t like how stations were feeding into consultant stories. She now teaches journalism at the University of Texas.
“For 20 years people would come up to me and say, ‘News only reports about bad things,’” says Weidaw, “And I’d say, ‘Do you slow down to look at the flashing lights on the side of the road?’”
“Do you wonder what’s going on?”
“Do you want to know from your local news what’s happening?”
“Well, there ya go.”
Crime reporting is sensational
In 2013, police reported that crime had reached its lowest rate in Canada since 1969. But while 2013 was a year of little crime in Canada, the opposite was true for the nation’s capital.
In 2013 and 2014 in Ottawa there was a marked rise in shootings. Even though shootings went up, more people weren’t dying. In 2013, there were nine homicides, followed by seven in 2014.
Before the Citizen and the Sun merged in 2016 each newspaper had its own crime team. Now, Shaamini Yogaretnam is the sole crime reporter for the Citizen – and the only full-time police reporter in Ottawa.
Yogaretnam believes in plain facts. She says it’s not her job to sanitize her reporting to make a story appropriate.
“Shootings are down, okay, great. But if you’re the guy that got shot in the leg… does that mean anything to you?”
In giving details that might be sensational, Yogaretnam says she’s reflecting the experience of someone brave enough to share what’s happened to them. And crime is inherently sensational. No question.
People tend to worry more when reading a local homicide story than any other, yet homicides represent only 0.2% of all reported violent crimes in Canada. The challenge is to report while also telling the truth that crime is down. We have to watch out for disproportionate journalism.
Context is key
In every journalist’s toolbox is learning how to report on crime, says Elana Newman, a psychology professor and research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Tulsa. Just because something is unique and newsworthy does not always mean it’s a representation of what’s going on in our own neighbourhoods.
Adding context, says Newman, is key to avoiding disproportionate crime reporting. She advises journalists to think carefully about what they are telling readers, viewers and listeners.
One tip Newman has for journalists is to ask yourself: “If the crime happened to a loved one of yours, would you use the same tone and the same language?”
Back in the mountains of north Georgia, Chris Richardson teaches media and communication studies at a private liberal arts college. If we’re not reflecting on what we’re seeing and hearing, Richardson says, access to an abundance of crime stories can make people feel like there’s more crime happening than is actually the case. What we need to do is put crime stories into context.
Richardson says that the public likes to link crimes together. When there are multiple shootings people assume there’s a serial killer. These connections can make it seem like we’re in a “crime wave” when they are almost always isolated events.
“Which is why – especially Americans watching Fox News – people really believe that the world is more crime-ridden.” Americans like Richardson’s Georgia neighbour.
In September 2020 the Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that covers criminal justice in the U.S., confirmed Richardson’s worry. It publicized a Stanford University study showing that Fox News has spent more time covering violent crime than CNN and MSNBC combined.
“It’s scary sometimes to walk around and see the clear misinformation,” Richardson says. “But that’s a whole other story.”
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