Alison McCulloch: Crime and the fear factor

It might seem obvious that the more the news media report on crime, the more afraid of crime we will become.

Proving it, however, is another matter.

What's a lot easier to show is the simple fact that the media do devote an awful lot of time and space to covering crime, something the current Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Judy McGregor, investigated for an article she published in 2002.

McGregor looked just at newspapers, but she showed that the "hard news" space going to crime was on the rise, reaching around 20 per cent in the nation's major dailies.

It might have come as a surprise, then, to read this month that crime rates across the country - including here in the Bay of Plenty - are at record lows. The police did a good job of breaking the data down by region and putting together easy-to-read, downloadable reports of crime stats.

The 26-page report for the Bay of Plenty looked at different kinds of crime as well as trends, and showed total crime had dropped about 9 per cent since 2011, and has (mostly) been trending down for well over a decade.

Internationally speaking, New Zealand is a pretty safe country: it's among the top 10 safest in the OECD, with assault and murder rates among the world's lowest.

If that's true, and if crime really is going down, why do the news media devote what is arguably a disproportionate amount of hard news space to covering it? The obvious answer is that crime is news, but that just invites the next question: what's news?

For a long time, I bought into the "news values" theory I learned in journalism school, with all those noble goals of the Fourth Estate: to inform, to educate, to reflect society, to write the first draft of history, to speak truth to power. (Okay, I didn't learn that last one in journalism school.)

As anyone with an internet connection knows, journalism is in crisis and if journalists ever did have high-faluting notions of why they do what they do, they've surely been disabused of most of them by now.

The not-so-secret truth is that the news value that really matters is the one that sells the most papers. Whatever that happens to be.

Discussing the revamp of The New Zealand Herald a few months ago, the paper's editor, Shayne Currie, spoke of the increasing commercial pressures on newspaper editors. "We get about two ... seconds to capture the reader's eye," he explained. And there's nothing like a big headline to do that.

Hard to prove or not, an over-emphasis on crime is likely to make us feel less safe - at least, less safe than the statistics suggest we should feel. A solid research study published some years ago in the British Journal of Criminology actually set out to try to measure the impact of crime reporting on how people feel.

It concluded, as you might expect, that the papers that report the most crime and do so in the most sensational way have readers with the highest levels of fear. The authors were careful to say they couldn't prove a causal link and pointed to the need for more research.

It would certainly be interesting to update the study and carry out a local version. The results might be surprising. We've been reading about so much crime for so long, it could be that it doesn't bother us anymore and we've simply become immune. Which might be why the headlines just seem to get bigger and bigger.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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