Today we’ll look at numbers. Yes, more fun with statistics. Not crime stats like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, but what Americans overall think about crime stats.
Most students in most of my classes initially think the rate of crime has gone UP over the past 25 years. At the beginning of class we do a little “pop quiz” about beliefs around crime rates and violence. When asked, the majority who thought the rate of violence had gone up cite the prevalence of violence in the media. The Gallop Poll too tracks this kind of opinion but in a more rigorous way and over the nation; they’ve found that most Americans believe the rate of crime nationally has gone up just about every year over the past 25 years. For instance, in 2016, 70% of respondents believed there was more crime in the US than there had been the prior year. Despite the fact that the actual rate of crime has gone DOWN overall over the past 25 years. The most dramatic drop, BTW, was seen between 1993 and 2000.
A couple of more numbers: Back to 2016, 60% of Americans said that the crime rate was either “extremely” or “very” serious, and 79% reported that they worried about the rate of crime and violence. Yet in that same year only 14% of Americans felt that the rate of crime in their area, where they lived, was either “extremely” or “very” serious. You can find these numbers, and many many more, at https://news.gallup.com/poll/1603/crime.aspx. These Gallop people have serious fun with statistics.
Why do so many of our neighbors believe the crime rate is increasing when it was in fact decreasing? The prime suspect is likely mass media reporting. Violence sells, violence leads, and in our current 24/7 news cycle over myriads of channels, the theme of violence gets ingrained. Something repeated over and over and over, true or not, seems to take on a life of its own.
This is not news. This was discussed decades ago, before there were hundreds of TV channels, cable channels, and social media to disseminate highly lucrative disinformation. Crime sells.
Way back in the 1970s, Dr. George Gerbner at the University of Pennsylvania put forward “cultivation” or “mean world theory,” proposing that prolonged exposure to violence on television gives rise to increased fear of crime and a view that the world is a more dangerous place than it really is.
Gerbner testified before a US House of Representative Subcommittee in 1981 about possible political effects:
“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong tough measures and hard-line postures,” Gerbner said in 1981. “They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.”
And it’s not just the news, fictional programs too contribute to this “mean world” approach. How about social media?
Back to the beginning — what do Americans think of crime stats? Mostly we don’t. Most people are uninformed, rely on information several times removed from sources, and spun to sell something.
Are better sources hard to find? No. And I’ll leave it at that today.