May 1 1994

Crime Contradictions

U.S. News Illustrates Flaws in Crime Coverage

“A scary orgy of violent crime is fueling another public call to action.”

That’s how U.S. News & World Report opened its Jan. 17 cover story on “Violence in America.” It also encapsulates the tone of much of the overheated and overhyped reporting on crime over the past year.

Despite the impression one would get from news coverage, the incidence of crime has not risen dramatically in the past year. The most reliable research suggests, in fact, that there is no more violent crime today than there was 20 years ago.

What there is more of–much more–is crime coverage. According to The Tyndall Report (2/94), crime took up more than two and a half hours (157 minutes) a month on network news from October 1993 until January 1994. In the three years ending with January 1992, by contrast, these network shows spent 67 minutes a month on crime stories.And the coverage has taken on a shrill tabloid tone, designed to evoke fear, as with NBC Nightly News‘ regular feature “Society Under Siege.”

The coverage seems to have had an effect. In June 1993, 5 percent of those polled by a Washington Post/ABC poll named crime as the most important issue facing the country. By February 1994, after months of saturation media coverage of crime, 31 percent said it was the most important problem–far outstripping any other issue. When asked in a Times Mirror where they got their information about crime, 65 percent said that they learned about it from the media.

How did mass media give people the false impression that crime was climbing drastically? How did they justify portraying steady crime rates as a “scary orgy” that demands immediate action? An examination of U.S. News‘ special report on crime is revealing, illustrating the major themes, distortions and self-contradictions of much of mainstream crime coverage in 1993 and 1994.

“Rough, flawed estimates”

A recurring theme in U.S. News‘ crime report, headlined “The Truth About Violent Crime” on the cover, is that crime is up. “Violence in modern America began its upward climb in 1960,” we are told. “Nothing has stemmed the upward spiral of reported violent incidents.” The coverage–which consists of a main article, four companion pieces and several sidebars–is sprinkled with casual references to the ongoing “wave of violence” and the “escalating crime numbers.” A graph charts the crime statistics’ “relentless growth.”

The claim that crime in the U.S. is on the rise is based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which collect data on reported crimes from police agencies across the country. The rate of violent crime, according to FBI statistics, has risen by 81 percent since 1973 (and has more than quadrupled since 1960).

But there is another source for crime statistics, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (like the FBI, a branch of the Department of Justice). This agency conducts the annual National Crime Victimization Survey, which asks people across the country whether they or members of their household have been victims of crime in the past year (tabulating unreported as well as reported crimes). According to the NCVS, the crime rate has been basically flat since the survey began: There were 32.6 violent crimes per thousand persons (12 years old and up) in 1973, and 32.1 per thousand in 1992.

Of the two surveys, the NCVS is considered the more reliable. The Uniform Crime Reports “are widely mistaken as indicators of the ‘real’ level of crime, rather than merely rough, and flawed, estimates,” says Tony Pate of the Police Foundation, an independent crime research institute. There is “enormous variation in reporting procedures and policies” between the thousands of police agencies that take part in the survey, Pate says. “Not all agencies follow the reporting instructions properly.”

This variation makes it extremely difficult to compare the FBI statistics from different years, since there is no way to say whether local police are classifying and reporting crimes consistently. While the NCVS is not a perfect gauge of crime rates–it is notoriously bad, for example, at counting rapes—Pate calls it the “preferable indicator,”since it is “applied in a standardized fashion over time.”

U.S. News reporters were well aware that an alternative measure of crime exists–they use NCVS figures more than once to show that the number of all crimes is much greater than the number of reported crimes. But the magazine never mentions that this survey contradicts its picture of “relentless growth” in crime.

“Scariest year”

To be sure, U.S. News does have a disclaimer toward the front of the article, noting that “the latest evidence is that crime levels actually fell last year”–because even the FBI figures showed a drop in reported crimes. There is even an implicit criticism of “the drumbeat of news coverage [that] has made it seem that America is in the midst of its worst epidemic of violence ever. That sense is not supported by the numbers,” the magazine acknowledges.

U.S. News immediately follows that, however, with an assertion that the numbers don’t matter: “But that doesn’t mean that last year wasn’t the scariest in American history.” This appears to say that the perception of danger from crime is as important as the reality–even if the perception is a product of media hyperbole.

But the magazine seems to realize that media-inspired worry about crime can’t justify another cover story on the crime threat. “Overriding the statistics,” the article continues, “is the chilling realization that the big crime stories of recent months have invaded virtually every sanctuary where Americans thought they were safe.”

This theme of “invading sanctuaries,” prominent in much current crime coverage, runs throughout U.S. News‘ report: “To many, this wave of violence is ominous because safe havens are violated,” a caption declares. “The nature of some of the crime is changing,” the main article states, “making some people more vulnerable and bringing the worst kinds of problems into communities that many thought were safe.”

The “some people” whose communities are no longer safe are apparently supposed to be (white) suburbanites, an assertion that is usually implicit but occasionally overt: “Middle-sized and small towns…are now experiencing some of the same trends in the violence contagion that cities have faced for a generation,” the magazine states. Writing about “coldblooded kids” from “America’s mean streets,” a companion piece declares that “their malign ethos has metastasized to the suburbs, where youthful murder is increasingly common.”

In both these references, urban crime is compared to a disease–a “contagion” or a “metastasized” cancer–that city-dwellers carried into previously uninfected suburbia. But the reality of crime distribution is very different from this pathological imagery.

As U.S. News briefly notes in a sidebar, crime is not rising in suburbs, it is falling. According to the latest statistics available from NCVS, a suburban resident was 13 percent more likely to be a victim of violent crime in 1973. Crimes like theft and burglary have declined substantially in the suburbs, and in rural areas as well.

The magazine does note that black people are disproportionately victims of crime. (See p. 13.) But when African-Americans figure in U.S. News‘ crime report–as in most U.S. crime coverage–they appear as “them,” not as “us.”

“Random Slaughter”

U.S. News avoids appearing overtly racist by focusing not on violence against whites, but on “random” violence. The message is the same: You, our reader, whom we assume to be a white, middle-aged suburbanite–are in danger.

Thus, U.S. News gives us “safety tips” that begin: “No safety rules can protect the law-abiding from being hit by random firefrom crazed gunmen.” “Many are terrified by the random nature of current violence,” a caption asserts. “A holiday-season burst of multiple killings showed…how random the slaughter can be,” the magazine reports.

This focus on “random” violence resulted in strained logic. Under the heading of “murder,” the magazine notes, “While the absolute numbers fluctuated in the past decade, an increase in random murder was especially ominous. Decades ago, most murders were committed by relatives or acquaintances of the victim. Now, the proportion committed by strangers may have risen to one third, fueling the growing fear that there’s no place where anyone is really safe.”

In other words, since the murder rate isn’t really changing much–it’s fluctuated between 8.3 per 100,000 people and 10.2 per 100,000 for the past 20 years—U.S. News is searching for another way to make the numbers seem scary. Actually, the FBI classifies 13.5 percent, not one-third, of murderers as strangers to their victims–so “most” murders are still committed by relatives and acquaintances, just as was the case “decades ago.” At any rate, it’s unclear how a drop in the proportion of murders committed by family and acquaintances would make people feel less safe in everyday places.

If that wasn’t illogical enough, two paragraphs later, U.S. News is telling us that “contrary to conventional wisdom, random slaughters like last month’s Long Island Railroad massacre and recent shooting sprees at postal facilities are not increasing sharply.” The writers seem not to notice that they had been reporting on the “increase in random murder” just moments earlier.

U.S. News‘ report, like crime coverage in general, is filled with such contradictions. The magazine seems to be torn between the impulses to alarm and to reassure. Usually, it’s the boldface assertions–particularly in captions–that end up being contradicted in the text.

Thus, the pictures that accompany the main article of U.S. News‘ report feature the Long Island Railroad slaughter, two examples of revenge killings at workplaces, the suspect in the Polly Klaas murder, and the site of a random killing at a Dallas mall–all of which are presented as evidence of disturbing new trends (“Angry disputes often end in gunfire,” “Impulsive violence is also on the rise,” etc.).

In the text, however, we are told that mass murders in public places are not becoming more common, that child snatchings likewise continue to be very rare, and that workplace killings are “hardly at epidemic proportions.” Although U.S. News says it is “a common error of citizens and policy makers… to mistake big news stories for big trends,” the magazine’s own report makes that mistake over and over again.

“Sanctioning criminals”

Although the central article of U.S. News‘ report has little to say about the causes of crime, a companion piece on youth violence deals with the question with more seriousness than most mainstream accounts. Writer Scott Miner brook stresses the fact that violent offenders are often victims of severe child abuse, a connection well-documented by social scientists but little noted in the media.

The attempt to find explanations for violence has its blind spots: Is it a “tragic trend,” for instance, that the number of single-parent families are growing, or is it tragic that single mothers are given only the barest level of support in this country?Scandinavian countries, noted for progressive welfare systems, have high rates of out-of-wedlock births along with very low murder rates.

Listing contributing factors to crime, Minerbrook mentions that “not least, there’s the loss of millions of urban manufacturing jobs that are no longer available to kids willing to work to avoid lives of crime.” If that’s not the least important factor, isn’t it worth more than one sentence?

While underlying issues of poverty and job loss don’t figure much in U.S. News‘ explanation of the causes of crime, economic issues are entirely left out of their discussion of solutions. According to the main article, “massive spending on social programs for the poor” is just an example of a failed, outdated attempt to stem crime.

But U.S. News‘ descriptions of crime remedies are as convoluted as their discussion of the problem. For example, money for more police officers is cited as “the most important item” in new crime legislation. But in the next paragraph, U.S. News cites their own survey that “found that more police does not necessarily mean lower crime rates.”

Similarly, the “massive buildup of prison cells” and the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences are cited as anti-crime strategies that have been tried and failed. Yet the article praises the “heightened anti-crime fervor” of local officials, as represented by one Kansas City state prosecutor, who is quoted as saying,” We’ve got to lock them up for as long as we can.”

Ultimately, what comes across as the preferred solution to crime are not any programs that would require government investment, but those “grassroots organizations” that residents of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas carry out themselves.

Political solutions may help in the “larger community,” as Michael Barone argues in an accompanying column, but the “something more is required to reduce the sickening violence in poor communities where violence and sexual predation can be overwhelming.”

Barone contends that those who are most frequently the victims of crime are the ones ultimately responsible for it, because by allowing it to happen to them, they “sanction” it. Because they “take pains to avoid and never anger” the suspected criminals among them, Barone states, residents of poor neighborhoods tell “the criminal that his misdeeds are expected, assumed, in some sense understood and approved.”

Having told readers who ought to fear crime–white suburbanites, or “us”–U.S. News here reminds readers who’s really to blame for crime–black city dwellers, or “them.” Having argued that now “crime can strike anywhere”, the magazine–like much of U.S. crime coverage–still traces the roots of crime back to the same old place, poor urban neighborhoods whose residents need not more jobs, but more morals.