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Violent Crime Is Dropping: Why Are We So Scared?

• June 12, 2013 • 6:00 AM

The Wire. (COURTESY OF HBO)

A majority of Americans continue to overestimate crime rates, even as crime levels drop across the country.

Blame it on the media?

A Pew Research Center poll released last month found that most Americans think that gun crime has increased in the past two decades—but they’re dead wrong. In the survey of 900 adults, 56 percent thought gun crime had increased, 26 percent thought it had stayed about the same, and only 12 percent thought it had gone down.

Those 12 percent were right. A separate report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of gun homicides decreased by 39 percent from 1993 to 2011, and that non-fatal shootings fell by 69 percent. According to the FBI’s most recent figures, violent crime overall has steadily decreased every year in the past 10. Homicides are on the downward trend in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, as reported yesterday in The New York Times.

Pew found that women, people of color, and the elderly were more likely than young or white people were to think that gun crime had risen in America.

This perception-versus-reality disconnect isn’t new: a Gallup poll of public perception of crime, taken in 2007, also found that most Americans thought it had increased both locally and nationally (even though it hadn’t). One criminologist and professor of sociology, Dr. Mark Warr at the University of Texas, has said that, every time a new report on national crime is released, his phone rings off the hook, with reporters asking him to comment on “rising crime,” even though that’s not what the reports actually show.

There is an inflated perception of crime even on the citywide level. At the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, researchers found this month that people in Rochester “dramatically overestimate” the number of murders in their city each year. According to the Democrat and Chronicle: “Last year, there were 36 homicides in the city. Throwing out the largest and smallest responses (one person thought there were three homicides and another thought there were 1.5 million) the average estimate was 60 homicides per year in the Rochester.”

Wow, 1.5 million homicides a year, in a city of just under 211,000? My goodness. A professor of corrections, management, crime, and violence at RIT told the Democrat and Chronicle that the media most likely played a role in stoking fears. “People are exposed to all kinds of fictional and non-fictional violence that I think contribute to that,” said John Klofas. “Lots of our media attention is drawn to issues of violence, and one of the consequences of that is to view it as much more prevalent than it actually is.”

Especially when it comes to public perception of gun crime in particular, high-profile mass shootings and an impassioned gun-control policy debate could be to blame. To a certain extent the U.S. has always been a gun culture, with more guns per capita here than in any other country, notes the Los Angeles Times. The Pew Research poll from last month also found that women, people of color, and the elderly were more likely than young or white people were to think that gun crime had risen in America.

The media connection could probably use some further study. For instance, Kenneth Dowler, a professor of criminology at California State University in 2003, looked at the relationship between people’s media consumption and their attitudes toward crime. Dowler’s research found, for instance, that people who watch more crime dramas are “more likely to fear crime.”

But isn’t it possible that people who watch the most crime dramas are drawn to those types of shows because they’re already scared?

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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