Crime, Media, and the Truth

You know the saying: "If it bleeds, it leads." But in a world where grabby headlines increasingly dominate all types of news media, that kind of philosophy can actually mislead. So it pays to ask: is there a correlation between those headlines and what the police are actually discovering -- or are the newspapers reporting crime in a way that attracts the most attention?

To answer that question, we went out and studied one week of crime coverage from four papers in four major U.S. cities. We then looked at police crime reports in those cities over the same period. Depending on where you go for your news, the results may surprise you.

Crime news reports are dominated by murders, stabbings, shootings and assaults.

Murder accounts for less than 1% of crimes committed -- yet it receives around 20% to 30% of the crime related coverage in the newspapers that we analyzed. Even in Oakland, CA --the most accurate city we studied -- murders made up .8% of overall crime, but were awarded 62% of major media focus. If you lived in the city, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the murder capital of the world!

In contrast, burglaries, auto thefts, and other larcenies accounted for 57% of the crime in Oakland. These crimes affected far more Oakland residents -- but the media was too distracted by gore to bring the scale of these other problems to their readers' attention. A particular shame, since the more aware you are of burglary and other property crimes, the more likely you are to successfully protect yourself.

Murder was the chief focus in the local press -- even in cities where larceny proved to be the greatest crime threat to the local population.

Oakland is far from an isolated case. Over in Dallas, TX, the police files showed that 52% of crimes committed in our one week period were larceny incidents. So how much major press coverage do you think those cases received? If you said "zero," you're 100% correct.

The publishers' reasoning behind this is clear: shocking crimes are likely to attract readers' attention and in turn, sell more newspapers. Larceny is boring by comparison (until it happens to you).

It's not all bad...

Of course, the press also does great work in the fight against crime -- the pen is mightier than the sword, after all. In Dallas and New York City, the media works hard to educate on issues from police misconduct to pending criminal legislation. Local crime reporting especially can give the public access to information that you wouldn't necessarily think to obtain from the police.

These are important areas and we salute their efforts. Here's what the press did to enlighten their readers:

• In Dallas, crime reporters devoted 25% of their time to educating the public about criminal justice issues.

• Over in New York, reporters informed their readers over these problems 19.4% of the time.

• New York City also stood out by advocating for citizens' rights within their crime stories, writing often about police conduct issues, racial profiling, and surveillance.

What have we learned?

If you see a murder reported in your locality, best not to lose sleep over it. Even in the city with the highest murder ratio, the total crime rate for incidents where a killing results makes up for less than 1% of all felonies.

Don't forget that point but remember too that your local press is a vital resource for keeping up to date with issues such as police conduct, criminal justice and other important legislative questions in your area.

Kevin Raposo is a blogger for SimpliSafe Home Security. Kevin covers issues related to crime, safety, and home security. When he's not watching the news, he's typically catching up on his DVR or just browsing the web. SimpliSafe is growing to be a leader in the home security industry.