May 3, 2009

Coverage of murder increasingly out of touch with crime statistics

Using the same method as in the case of coverage vs. the actual risk of rape, I've found the same thing for newspaper coverage of murder vs. the underlying murder rate. Starting in the early 1990s, the coverage goes up while the crime rate goes down, so the measure of irrational hysteria starts to climb. In recent years, the irrational hysteria has been more than twice as high as it was during the 1980s. Here is the graph:

And here are the two separate trends making up the ratio:


  1. From the late Michael Crichton: "The word, CATASTROPHE, was used five times as much in the media in 1995 than in 1985. IT DOUBLED AGAIN BY 2000." (!)

    Excerpted from "State of Fear":

    “If you study the media, as my graduate students and I do, seeking to find shifts in normative conceptualization, you discover something extremely interesting. We looked at transcripts of news programs of the major networks—NBC, ABC, CBS. We also looked at stories in the newspapers of New York, Washington, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle. We counted the frequency of certain concepts and terms used by the media. The results were very striking.” He paused.

    “What did you find?” Evans said, taking his cue.

    “There was a major shift in the fall of 1989. Before that time, the media did not make excessive use of terms such as crisis, catastrophe, cat­aclysm, plague, or disaster For example, during the 1980s, the word crisis appeared in news reports about as often as the word budget. In addition, prior to 1989, adjectives such as dire, unprecedented, dreaded were not common in television reports or newspaper headlines. But then it all changed.”

    “In what way?”

    “These terms started to become more and more common. The word catastrophe was used five times more often in 1995 than it was in 1985. Its use doubled again by the year 2000. And the stories changed, too. There was a heightened emphasis on fear, worry, danger, uncertainty, panic.”

    “Why should it have changed in 1989?”

    Miles here again............what happened in 1989 was the Berlin Wall fell, and the media replaced the commie/evil empire/take-away-your-religious-beliefs/lose-the-cold-war fears to sell advertising with global warming, pandemics, racism, sexism, homophobia, hysterias, fear, and guilt-mongering.

    A scared public pays attention to the news and doesn't go about its business in a happy-go-lucky way. M

  2. I would imagine that most extreme imbalance involves children abducted by strangers. Massive hype, widespread fear, but very few actual cases.


  3. What tools do you use to gather your data?

  4. I don't know about the Berlin Wall falling -- maybe for the rise in hyping up terrorism, but not feminism, identity politics, etc.

    Those are cyclical -- there was the late '60s counterculture, Rosie the Riveter and Jackie Robinson before that, Flappers and the Harlem Renaissance before that, the Progressive Movement before that, etc.

    "What tools do you use to gather your data?"

    The NYT website allows you to search, so I just do that. Just go to the "advanced search results." One option is search within a custom date range. And I calculate the total number of articles by searching for "the" -- the most frequent word, which appears in any article.

  5. Though you are correctly skeptical about trying to tie these trends to one event, I can't help but suspect that the Simpson case substantially helped revive sensationalistic murder stories. On top of surely making many journalists a bucket load of cash, the trial, combined with the King trial and LA riots, proved to the media that you can cover violent crime (primarily committed by NAMs, natch) and *still* make it look like they're the helpless victims of white society.

    And, needless to say, most of the high profile murder cases of the past 15 years have been white-on-white crimes, bypassing the race issue altogether. (Indeed, weakening it, as hyping up white middle and upper class murders exclusively obscures murder's true nature.)


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