Monday, November 02, 2015

Underlying Our Fear of Crime is a Paradox

The news media often rationalizes its obsession with violent crime by purporting that this is what people are interested in and/or concerned about.

A new Gallup poll once again dispels that notion.

It is true that 17% of Americans frequently or occasionally worry about getting murdered, as do 16% who worry about being sexually assaulted.

However, many times more Americans are worried about being the victim of theft, which is borne out by reactions on neighborhood listservs or increasingly now related apps.

Over the last ten years, the proportion of Americans who perceive that crime is going up has roughly climbed back to what it was in the mid-1990s.

This has been true while the violent crime rate has steadily trended downward.  The misperception disconnect is as likely among Americans who have not been victims as it is among those who have.

Puzzling is that this misperception is far higher among Republicans than Independents overall as well as Democrats, and 23 points higher among conservatives than it is among liberals.

What makes this relevant is that Republicans are more likely to be “cocooned” where they live.  The news media sees politicians in states such as where I live as pitting rural areas against cities.

But for several years, analysts have noted a “Red State – Blue City” divide.  As shown by Josh Kron in The Atlantic, “people don’t make cities liberal – cities make people liberal.”

Some of “America’s bluest cities are located in its reddest states.”

Only 37% of Americans live within a mile of an area where they would be afraid to walk alone at night which is roughly what it was in 1965, even though the proportion of Americans living in cities has increased over that span from 69.9% to 80.7%.

This is why examining the role of the news media and news outlet proliferation during that span as related to what we fear is important.

In 1999, then USC sociology researcher and now Lewis & Clark College president Dr. Barry Glassner published a book entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

Using data that is even more relevant now, he took to task politicians, advocacy groups, and news media for being “peddlers of fear.”

As tragic as the circumstances were in Ferguson, MO, as well as a series of subsequent events, the rush to judgment over the past 16 months in the news and among advocacy groups regarding law enforcement is an example of what Glassner was writing about.

Many researchers too have been enablers by failing to explain in news reports that correlation is not causation nor even always very useful.

Race isn’t always a factor, but for many violent crimes it is sometimes relevant.

For example, 48% of Americans who are parents of school age children fear their children will be physically harmed at school.  This is an underreported reason “Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools.”

Even among liberals, according to author Abby Norman, “They want diversity, just not too much.” 

But most school shooting are committed by white males.  That fact should naturally end up a factor while delving into solutions just as race as well as parenting should not be off limits while studying other types of crime.

Geo-studies of gun violence have found that 50% trace to just 3% of a community’s street segments and intersections.

Half of the overall crime in a community, including the break-ins that most concern Americans, traces to just 4% of street segments and intersections.

Sociological researchers such as Harvard’s Dr. Orlando Patterson, who happens to be black, have found that between 12% and 28% of the youth in neighborhood hot-spots such as these has a contempt for laws and institutions.

He notes that they are infected “with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life.”

He also notes that in tackling the present series of crises “it is a clear mistake to focus only on police brutality, and it is fatuous to attribute it all to white racism.”

It is, he contends, “a culture reinforced by contemporary conditions like poverty, racial discrimination, chronic unemployment, single parenting and a chemically toxic, neurologically injurious environment, like lead paint.”

But it is a culture nonetheless.  Certainly not black culture per se, but a culture fostered among a very small minority in these specific locations where a majority of inhabitants happen to be black, hard-working and lawful.

This is also why researchers who assume traffic stops or resulting fines in certain areas should reflect the overall make up of a community are misleading the general public when commenting during news reports.

Just as with whatever is leading disturbed white males to shoot up schools, the culture Dr. Patterson is citing is not evenly distributed.

News reports often not only generalize crime to an overall community, but misperceptions are often exaggerated by double coverage when the media in nearby communities jump on the same stories rather than shining a balanced light on similar issues at home.

The answer is more coverage of crime, not less.

But headlines and reports should be far more geographically specific and as quick to signal why some crimes should not be a source of generalized fear.

It would also help if editors were a eager to provide details such as property that is left unsecured or the role of underzealous parenting in addition to overzealous enforcement.

It would also help if news stories called out politicians and groups seeking to capitalize on misperceptions and geo-generalizations.

Seth Godin recently said something that could as easily be applied to this which was, “as with pollution, because no one owns the problem, no one is working very hard to solve it.”

But journalists who are concerned about this paradigm and accept some responsibility can not only set an example but begin to raise the bar for others.

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