I’ve been slamming American tv “news” for a while. Today I’d like to focus on the way CNN, Fox, et al portray crime. Because their coverage is worse than it was just a few years ago. And while they’ve been doing this, violent crime hasn’t been getting worse. It’s getting better, and has been improving for decades. American tv “news” is warping our understanding of domestic crime.
Let me start with a little story. It’s an anecdote to file away for a future history. It involves one tv host (anchor? droid? “reporter” isn’t the right word) complaining that president Obama sees the world as less violent now than it once was.
Sean Hannity raged:
Less violent? Never been—are you kidding me?…
When he says the world has never been less violent, my 14-year-old daughter recognizes he’s an idiot to say that because it’s so obviously not true….
What the hell is he talking about?
As Jacob Sollum goes on to demonstrate, what president Obama was talking about was… reality.
[H]umans are, broadly speaking, less likely to die violent deaths than ever before in recorded history. Contrary to what Hannity apparently thinks, that long-term trend—which includes deaths by war, genocide, terrorism, and other forms of mass killing as well ordinary homicide—is unaltered by whatever Fox News report happens to be uppermost in Hannity’s mind at any given moment.
If you don’t believe Sullum, you could consult EconomicPicData. Their post includes this data on robbery, rape, and murder over the past 20 years:
This decline happened in both absolute and relative terms. That’s a very important distinction:
Despite the United States 21% population increase since 1995, violent crimes were down -35%, translating into a decline in violent crime per capita of almost 50%. Rape, murder, and robbery were all down over this period in absolute terms and down a lot in per capita terms.
We could also reference the Washington Post, which cites the FBI, looking at violent crime incidents per person over 54 years:
Let’s zero in on the past 4 years:
Overall, the [FBI] found that the violent crime rate declined in 2014—by 1 percent from the previous year, by 9.6 percent from five years before, and by 22.1 percent from 10 years before. The rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 1.2 percent lower than one year earlier, 6.1 percent lower than five years earlier, and 20.8 percent lower than 10 years earlier.
Robbery, burglary, larceny, and car theft all continued to drop as well. Motor vehicle thefts showed the biggest reduction from a decade before, with the rate sliding 48.1 percent.
The FBI’s talliers recently revised their definition of rape, making cross-year comparisons difficult. But using the older definition, the crime increased slightly, by 1.6 percent, from 2013 to 2014. The rate was still 17.2 percent lower than 10 years earlier. The one other major crime rate that increased since 2013 was aggravated assault, which went up 1.2 percent. But that too saw a dramatic decrease in the last decade, going down 20.1 percent.
(Caveat: it’s possible that there’s an uptick this year, especially in certain cities. But the data is still tentative, and it’s too soon to tell if this is a statistical blip or the start of a new curve. It is clear that if there’s a national rise, it’s still far, far below levels seen in recent history.)
But Americans aren’t trying to understand this historical transformation because they don’t see these stats, it seems. Or if we do, we don’t care, or are distracted, even though those changes occurred during the lifetimes of average tv viewers (who tend to be older).
Government statistics show that, except for some small blips, serious crime has decreased almost every year from 1994 through 2013. For over a decade Gallup has found that the majority of Americans polled believe crime is up, contrary to the fact that crime rates have plummeted in almost every small and large city since the 1990s.
My contention is that tv “news” is distracting us from the actual change in crime. To put it in terms of our opening vignette, if violent crime is declining, we should be utterly unsurprised to see a tv “news” leader shrieking that the world is actually scary. It’s their business model, after all.
You can see evidence of this on CNN.com, the gold standard or mainstream center for tv journalism in the US. Every few days I sample their lead headlines. Here’s an example from the evening I finished this post, July 30, their “Top Stories”:
It’s a fine broth of death, destruction, murders, hacking, flight, crashes, and shootings, not to mention mysteries, hacking, threats, and Trump.
Here’s another sample, from a couple of days previously:
It’s another fine blend of Gothic terror (rape, nuns, non-US countries) with nearly apocalyptic violence (“It was raining fire from the sky”).
If I’m right, TV news really, really wants our time to be the start of a roaring new era of spectacular violence, in exact opposition. They’ve been running this would-be story, this fantasy, for decades, as reality peeled away from their representations.
For some striking examples, here are tv “news” home pages from multiple sites, from when I started working on this post, starting with CNN.com:
“‘Stay in your homes!’ Watch CNN” is really the ideal slogan for these mock-journalism enterprises. I do enjoy the brave inset of president Obama trying to defy the tv narrative. Note the left headline list with multiple Trump boosts and another police shooting. Fear + eyeballs is the formula.
Fox News uses the same formula, of course, mixed in with its own special blend of violence and horror. Here’s their front page, seen at the same time as the above CNN screengrab:
Very similar, with twists for Fox’s right-wing audience. Like CNN, we get multiple Trump shots, just more of them. We get a police shooting, this time biased towards the cops. Fox adds more violence (an abducted priest, I guess) and violent language (“settling the score”, “Trump buries rival”, “‘Selfie war'”).
Meanwhile, MSNBC, the liberal alternative (or so I’m assured), offers… more or less the same thing:
Shootings and Trump. The spin is different from Fox’s, of course – the Trump emphasis is one of fear, rather than encouragement, so the fear theme is definitely mainlined. MSNBC adds the KKK, which is well aimed at stoking anxiety among its particular (liberal) audience. The fear + eyeballs formula remains the theme.
Why is this a problem?
Because if tv “news” hadn’t been beating the drum of rising and imaginary violence, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been as able to claim a crime apocalypse was raining down upon us. From his acceptance speech: “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities.”
Because if tv “news” is driving some of us into counterfactual panic, we’re more likely to support bad policies, from militarized police to expanded surveillance.
And it’s just offensive to the intelligence of a population to be repeatedly lied to. This should be especially outrageous to educators.