Public perception of crime remains out of sync with reality, criminologist contends

When the FBI and Department of Justice release their annual reports on crime in the United States, Dr. Mark Warr's phone starts ringing. His voicemail fills with interview requests from reporters seeking the criminologist's expertise for stories on rising crime.

But the angle of many news stories based on FBI data--that violent crime is a growing national problem--is frustrating, the professor of sociology says, because it's inaccurate.

Mark Warr
Mark Warr, criminologist and professor of sociology, studies social reactions to crime and is the author of "Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct" (Cambridge University Press, 2002). 

"Many people don't realize that while reported crime may appear to go up in a given year, that doesn't mean real crime rates are on the rise," Warr says. "Based on data from a variety of measurement tools, the overall trend is actually quite good. In fact, the homicide rate in the western world has actually been declining for more than 700 years."

Warr has studied social reaction to crime for three decades, published dozens of studies on crime, public opinion and victimization, authored a book on delinquency and served as a consultant for the National Institute of Justice and National Academy of Sciences.

Yet when dramas such as "CSI," "Criminal Minds" and "Law and Order" dominate popular television, and crime coverage often fills a quarter of newspapers, measured perspectives such as Warr's are often lost in the clamor for lurid stories about America's most wanted.

As a result, the messages about crime that people receive from the mass media are often out of sync with reality, Warr contends.

"People are bombarded with information about crime from the media, which makes them believe the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is," Warr says. "This creates a climate of fear that can negatively affect the way we live, the way we go to work, the times we shop and the precautions we take for our families and children."

Origins of fear

Today, the issue of crime is a staple topic of media coverage and political campaigns, but this has not always been the case. Though the FBI began compiling data on crime in the 1930s, it was not until the 1960s that crime rose to the top of the public agenda.

People are bombarded with information about crime from the media, which makes them believe the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is. Dr. Mark Warr

One of the catalysts was the 1968 U.S. presidential election, in which Republican candidate Richard Nixon campaigned with the promise to restore law and order--a pronouncement now steeped in irony given the administration's ignominious end, Warr says.

During this time, the Gallup organization began tracking public opinion about crime. One question in Gallup's annual crime survey, which measures fear of crime, asks Americans: "Is there any area near where you live, that is, within a mile, where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?"

Americans and scholars were taken aback to learn that about one in three people answered yes, according to Gallup's 1968 poll, Warr says.

Where was this fear coming from and what were the consequences of fear for public life? As Warr and other sociologists began investigating these questions during the 1970s, they asked Americans who or what were their sources of information about crime. The answer: the mass media.

Impact of the media

Subsequent research has shown the mass media are a powerful amplifying mechanism when it comes to crime coverage, Warr says. Unfortunately, this can lead to big misperceptions.

"In media coverage of crime, a key element of newsworthiness is seriousness," Warr explains. "The more serious a crime is, the more likely it will be reported. But, in using seriousness as a news criterion, the media are more likely to over-report crimes that are least likely to occur, which presents an upside down view of the world."

As a result, people tend to exaggerate the risk of rare crimes, Warr says. They think murder is far more common than it is, and they underestimate frequent crimes, such as burglary or larceny.

"In the real world, the more serious a crime is, the less frequently it happens," Warr says. "That correlation is very strong. However, if you were to take any newspaper and count the crimes they report, you'll find the exact opposite. There's a distortion that creeps into everyday reporting about crime."

For example, Americans might be surprised to learn they are more likely to die from suicide than homicide. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics' 2008 report on death rates, and homicide falls even further down on the list.

"That's why I always tell my students not to hang out with themselves alone--it's very dangerous," Warr says, tongue in cheek.

Fear also undermines the civility and trust in our communities that make civic life possible, and that

Americans might also be surprised to learn that children, as a group, face greater danger from swimming pools than from strangers, Warr says. Drowning is the second leading cause of death (after car accidents) for children under the age of 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Parents shouldn't be concerned about kidnapers, they should be worried about the number of water-filled buckets in their house," Warr says. "For the most part, there's no need to worry about strangers lurking in every corner because they're just not there."

Need for education

Though crime rates overall are declining, last year Gallup found Americans perceive the crime problem in the United States as worsening, with seven in 10 saying there is "more crime in the U.S. than a year ago."

The failure of the media and public officials to demystify crime is not just unfortunate, it is dangerous, Warr warns.

"What makes fear of crime so important as a social problem is its consequences for our society," Warr says. "When people take precautions based on fear that restrict their life and their children's lives, we restrict our freedom and we do so unnecessarily. Fear also undermines the civility and trust in our communities that make civic life possible, and that's a terrible consequence for a democratic society."

When speaking with the media about crime during the past few decades, Warr has tried to inject information about the negative consequences of fear into news stories. His approach met with some success during the mid-1990s.

In 1994, ABC News drafted Warr to serve as an expert consultant for John Stossel's news special "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" which investigated the media's culpability in cultivating fear of crime.

Though the television special drew millions of viewers and was a step in the right direction, Warr found its impact was short-lived. Today, he sees the proliferation of true crime shows, such as ABC's "Primetime: Crime," as evidence that, in the quest for ratings and advertising dollars, the media are back on the crime beat.

But, Americans have good reason to be optimistic about crime, if not crime news coverage, Warr asserts.

"Part of my job as a researcher is to educate people about the reality of the world they live in--the reality that isn't reflected in the media," he says. "And overall, crime is going down. There are individual years where it will jump. But the long-term trend is that things are getting better."