The Media vs. Reality; Crime in the Information Age

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The Media vs. Reality: Crime in the Information Age

It's not difficult to gauge what the popular notions of crime in the United States are. Engage in any polite conversation over dinner or cocktails and one is likely to hear similar themes: "crime is out of control, it's just not the same world we grew up in, it's not safe to walk down the street anymore, it's a mean world out there," etc. The underlying theme that can be drawn from these notions is fear. There is a widespread conception that crime is a rampant problem in this country and that violent crime and others are on the rise. However, these beliefs are not supported at all by the facts, even those put forth by our own law enforcement agencies. So why then, are most Americans so concerned with the threat of violent crime in particular? While the answer to this question is a complex one involving many contributors, the focus of this essay is concerned with the impact of popular media on these perceptions, because the media, it would seem, is one of the most influential contributors to the social construction of crime in this country. The coverage of crime, and particularly violent crime, in the news media has increased in frequency of coverage and sensationalized reporting despite statistical proof that violent crime has been decreasing for many years. This phenomenon is of great concern because how we arrive at our perceptions of our world should be critically examined so policy solutions react to truth not manipulated reality. As of 2001 homicides made up one to two-tenths of one percent of all arrests, yet made up 27-29% of crime coverage on the nightly news (Dorfman and Schiraldi). Still one of the most shocking statistics from Dorfman and Schiraldi's study states that, "Crime coverage has increased while real crime rates have fallen. While homicide coverage was increasing on the network news by 473% from 1990 to 1998, homicide arrests dropped 32.9% from 1990 to 1998." We can see one indication of the effects of this unrealistic reporting in 1994 when, for example, in a Washington Post/ABC poll respondents named crime as their number one concern (far more than any other issue) with 65 percent of those who responded as such saying that they learned about this issue from the media (Jackson and Naureckas). The fact is, however, that violent crime has been on the decrease for roughly thirteen years and is estimated to be at a roughly thirty year low (U.S. Department of Justice). The following graph from the Department of Justice shows a dramatic decrease in the rates of violent crime beginning in the early nineties:  The National Criminal Victimization Survey, which is conducted differently than the more common Uniform Crime Reports, shows a decrease in violent as well as property crimes in the United States for more than a decade (qtd. in Torny 118). The evidence seems to be overwhelming; no matter what the method used for measuring crime rates there is an obvious decrease in crime, especially with respect to violent crime in the United States. These are just a couple of the statistics researchers and academics have compiled over recent years addressing the discrepancy between media coverage of crime and actual crime statistics. So in light of these multiple studies using different methods, how and why is it that media coverage of violent crime has grown exponentially? Surette explains that crime is both an individual and cultural product (237). There is a correlation between media consumption and support for more harsh criminal justice policies and perceptions of the "mean-world view" (Surette 196). This supports the theory that the more news a person consumes, particularly television news, the less they know about the actual state of the world. Surette explains that while the media certainly does have an impact it is not the only factor in creating this culture of the fear of crime and impacts those who live in a more isolated environment and consume...
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