Crime, the sensational ‘truth.’

Do you ever get tired of watching the news? Localised news broadcasts in particular seem to concentrate on the most sensational news stories of the day. ‘Man overboard, feared drowned.’ ‘Murder in South-western Sydney – two dead, more critical.’ ‘Road rage kills three.’ These could well be the lead stories of the evening when I switch on and tune in to the day’s events this evening.

Daniel Kahneman, The Nobel Prize Winner and pre-eminent psychologist is renowned for the philosophy that what you see is all there is, known as WYSIATI. In other words, we believe what we see. The more we see it the more we are led to believe it. Kahneman believes that humans are inherently lazy. He discusses this in detail in his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. From the book;

“A reliable way in making people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

If we take crime as an example, there is a high likelihood that the majority of people would think that the crime rate is rising, that it is higher today than it was fifty years ago. Those same people would have no credence for their opinion, they got it from watching the evening news. ‘You see it every night,’ they’d say. ‘If only we could go back to the good old days when there was no crime, I’d feel a whole lot safer. I drive my children to school because I’m afraid of what will happen to them in a crowd.’

This gives authority to Kahneman’s suggestion that familiarity breeds falsehoods.

In fact, studies have shown our belief the crime rate is rising is not substantiated by the figures. In Australia, studies have shown a substantial proportion of the population incorrectly believe crime rates are increasing when, in fact, they are stable or declining (Weatherburn & Indermaur 2004).

The Australian Institute of Criminology backs up this statement. Consider the following statement, (June 2008)

“If homicide is the yardstick by which the level of violence in society is measured, then the belief that violence is increasing in Australia cannot be substantiated.”

In 2012 the AIC further supported this claim with the following statement;

“While the volume and rate of individual crime types has fluctuated over the past few years, overall, crime in Australia has been decreasing.”

People generally over-estimate the rate of crime in their community. The closer to home the crime occurs the greater the impact on their over-estimation. The media’s role in this is critical. The more stories they cover on crime, the greater the influence those stories have on you and I, whether we’re aware of their influence or not. And the more violent the crime, the more likely the media will cover the ‘story’ in detail, sending a reporter to the scene to interview local police, and neighbours who witnessed the ‘atrocity,’ giving weight to the potentially ‘sensationalist’ way the news broadcast reports the story.

The result can be an over-emphasis of the risks and dangers we face as a whole in society at large, affecting the way we interact with others in our local community.

What role does the media play in this over-emphasis of risk?

Crime statistics have shown over time that the majority of crime is non-violent but the media concentrates on broadcasting stories related to violent crime, sensationalising crime, making us feel insecure and unsafe.

Certain groups have been shown to be over-represented in news broadcasts of crime, leading to those groups being alienated from the community at large, and society having a negative view of them due to the coverage they receive in the media. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (Report of Crime statistics), shows:

an over-representation of violent crimes,

an over-representation of children and the elderly as victims, and

an over-representation of youth as perpetrators of crime.

So why the fascination with crime in the news?

Professor Justin Lewis, head of the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, has been quoted in;;

“Crime stories have long been a staple of news reporting, but crime news doesn’t reflect the real world…Crime is usually reported because it is dramatic or alarming, not because it is typical or likely to have an impact on our lives. So while increases in the crime figures are seen as dramatic, decreases are seen as dull.” (quoted in 2009).4

In the UK in the 1990’s, according to the British Crime Survey, the total crime rate was over 15 million crimes per year. In the 2000’s this had declined to about 10 million. Yet in 2009, 65 per cent of the population still believed that crime rates were rising. Daniel Kahneman was right;

“…familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

The same situation prevails in the USA:

“News programs devote a disproportionate amount of air time to violent crimes. Consider that from 1993 to 1998, the homicide rate nationwide dropped by 20 percent. In the same period, coverage of murders on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news increased by 721 percent (Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute).”

So in order to ensure citizens in Australia, the UK and USA don’t continue to be deceived by sensationalism in the media, perhaps we could all consider reading;

Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking Skepticism and Science Exposed

by Robert Todd Carroll

Let’s improve our thinking, and let’s stop being thought a fool by news media. We can do this by not deceiving ourselves into believing what we see, by questioning what we’re told, and by thinking for ourselves. 

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