The Next Batch of Crime Statistics Won’t Be Much Fun For the Media

Crime trends have been mixed in the last few years, with some crimes increasing (mostly involving violence) and others declining (the majority of property crimes). In spite of the facts, I’ve noted in the past how the media has systematically distorted the reporting of crime statistics to create the impression that crime is spiraling out of control.

If the 2007 patterns observed so far in the largest U.S. cities are any indication, the alarmist media is going to have to work hard to find a way to spin this round of crime statistics into doom and gloom. Of the ten most populous cities, I was able to locate year-to-date crime data for five of them.

New York City reports a 13% decline in homicide, an 11% fall in robbery, and a 7.5% reduction in burglary this year. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his crew are having a good year as well: homicide is down 20%, robbery 6%, and burglary 2%. The numbers in Chicago are not quite as good: the murder rate is flat, with robbery down 7% and burglary down 2%.

Crime is also down across the board in San Diego, although I do not have exact percentages because the data for 2006 and 2007 were displayed in slightly different forms.

Of the five cities I examined, the only one that partially bucks the trend is Phoenix, which has seen a decline in homicide, but increases in both robbery and burglary.

Will an inventive media be able to use these crime data to scare people into thinking crime is getting worse? Most likely, yes. Never underestimate the creativity of journalists. Indeed, The Economist has already gotten a jump on the rest with an article describing Phoenix as a “crime-ridden mess.”


mgroves

Why report the truth when focusing on the negative is so much more interesting?

Tyler

The Economist: More media than economics. Go figure.

matt

Phx did have 2 serial killers though....

so they must be "up" in that stat....

Andrew

Of course! Look at The Times' own Bob Herbert, in a column in this very issue of this paper (although I'm reading it online), in which he echoes the view that crime is out of control.
As for "Tyler's" view about the worthiness of The Economist, I must point out that when people in positions of power and responsibility reach for a serious periodical, they're probably not picking up the NY Times Magazine...

Bill

Maybe it has to do with the demographic of the residents...Phoenix is certainly skewing older these days, and elderly retirees might be more susceptible to property crimes. Just off the top of my head...I don't have any data on that.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I'm glad to know that, in general, crime is down, but violent crime is actually increasing, which is alarming. Beyond this, who (or what) benefits when the media distorts crime statistics? Why is this done? Are we simply living in a more fear-filled world these days, post 9/11, or is there some gain through inflating the danger of crime?

Caitlin

Or, perhaps the Economist is right in saying that Phoenix is not as nice a place to live as it used to be. Murder rates are not the only factor affecting quality of life.

It's easy for the media to exploit statistics for an exciting headline but it's just as easy to make general, sweeping statements about media.

Both are equally unhelpful.

Charles

Reply to 6)

Of course there is a benefit for inflating crime. The media is composed of profit seeking companies which know the best way to get people to watch or read the news is to create panic. How quickly would you turn the channel if they just reported "everything is fine, nothing went wrong today." I am sure you were glued to the news during 9/11 just like all of America.

It's the basic plan media always has, lure you in with sensational lines so you have to watch the whole thing. They want to make it so you have to watch the news or you might die.

Cullen

If you look at the violent crime trend in Oakland, CA you would not think the media is being "alarmist".

Bill

Steves-

Is there any correlation with increasing levels of property crime as a the demographic of a city skews older?

Mike (miketodd.ca)

I think Herbert's column is useful though because it speaks to the focus on terrorism ("Look at all the bad things that haven't happened") as opposed to 100,000 murders in the US. 100,000 deaths isn't a crisis?! Seems disproportionate to me, anyway.

Ziah

Media companies are still companies in the free market system. They have to balance their costumer's demands of both engaging material and accurate reporting. If you find that there is more of one with detriment to the other, that is because of popular demand. Companies like this are hard to come down on without first coming down on ourselves when we realize that they are merely holding up a mirror.

econ2econ

Is the data limited to city limits or is it for the entire metro area, including suburbs? Because that could explain the trend (violent crime up where there are larger concentrations of poor people, property crime down with the movement of higher end properties to the suburbs).

Jeffrey Butts, Chicago

There are two key problems with crime reporting: 1) selection bias (media focus their attention where crimes rates are rising, but rarely follow-up to discover when those increases turn out to be short-lived); and 2) near-sightedness (they analyze only a few years of recent crime data, making relatively small fluctuations seem much larger).

Dan

I'm surprised in general that there hasn't been more coverage of Philadelphia's crime wave. This year alone there have been 211 murders. compare that to NYC, which has had 301 murders in a population eight times as large. That's over four times as many murders per captia, and (although I don't have the numbers in front of me), i recall that the number of shootings is even more disproportionate. What makes it worse is that many of these crimes are unsolved due to the 'Stop Sniching' mentality in many neighborhoods. There have been a number of high profile cases where people were shot in broad daylight on a busy street, or in a crowded bar, and no one admitted to seeing anything involving the crime. If this mentality spreads, there might just be the kind of crime wave the media is hyping.

Isabel

I suspect that if any one kind of crime is going up, the media will point it out. Since we split crimes into a large number of categories, if crime overall is flat -- or even slowly declining! -- there's likely to be some sort of crime that's becoming more common, just due to the inevitable statistical fluctuations.

Jeffrey Butts, Chicago

I recently posted city-specific violent crime rates in easy line-graph form for the period 1986-2006. See http://jeffreybutts.net and click on "crime trends."

The data are from the FBI, as assembled by BJS (part of the US DOJ).

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

To answer my own question (with apologies to #8, who mentions some good points; thank you), a fearful nation is probably a more malleable nation (to ideas about the need for government surveillance, and other, increasingly invasive measures. Beyond this: it's said that good news is under-reported. But, would we get bored with too much good (i.e.: "bland") news, I wonder? Are we, as a nation "addicted" to fear, woe and turmoil?

Charles

Funny that Bob Herbert in his column regarding the 100,000 people murdered in this country since 9/11 says:

"No heightening of consciousness has accompanied this slaughter, which had nothing to do with terrorism. The news media and most politicians have hardly bothered to notice."

and you write:

"In spite of the facts, I've noted in the past how the media has systematically distorted the reporting of crime statistics to create the impression that crime is spiraling out of control."

Could not be the case that despite some reduction in crime rates, current rates are still out of control?

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_murder_rate),
US latest homicide rate per 100,000 was 5.9, above those of Albania, Palestine, Turkey and Iran (figures for 2004-05). And I'm sure that if you compare the rates by city, most US cities would be at the top of the developed world ranking.

Read more...

taotechuck

Baltimore is another one that bucks the trend. 196 homicides so far this year, compared to approximately 168 at this time last year. We're on track for our highest homicide rate since 1999, and we're so happy about it that early polls say we're re-electing our mayor!

As #15 pointed out, Philly is also having a banner year. However, their population of approximately 1,450,000 gives them about 15 homicide victims per 100,000 citizens, while the people of Baltimore have been killing 30 of every 100,000 residents so far this year.