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August 25, 2018

"Explaining Misperceptions of Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this paper I saw earlier this summer via SSRN which I have been meaning to post.  The paper is authored by Jane Esberg and Jonathan Mummolo and here is its abstract:

Promoting public safety is a central mandate of government.  But despite decades of dramatic improvements, most Americans believe crime is rising — a mysterious pattern that may pervert the criminal justice policymaking process.  What explains this disconnect?  We test five plausible explanations: survey mismeasurement, extrapolation from local crime conditions, lack of exposure to facts, partisan cues and the racialization of crime. 

Cross-referencing over a decade of crime records with geolocated polling data and original survey experiments, we show individuals readily update beliefs when presented with accurate crime statistics, but this effect is attenuated when statistics are embedded in a typical crime news article, and confidence in perceptions is diminished when a copartisan elite undermines official statistics.  We conclude Americans misperceive crime because of the frequency and manner of encounters with relevant statistics.  Our results suggest widespread misperceptions are likely to persist barring foundational changes in Americans’ information consumption habits, or elite assistance.

August 25, 2018 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


I think I might agree to a jargon-free translation.

Posted by: John Neff | Aug 25, 2018 12:38:53 PM

I've long thought it is a function of our shrinking world. We simply hear about every bad thing that happens regardless of where it happened. That and a 24-hour news cycle that has to fill all that time with _something_.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 25, 2018 6:01:13 PM

Getting rid of jargon, the basic rule of the news -- whether TV, radio, print, or internet -- is that "If it bleeds, it leads." Any major city is large enough that there will be some homicide in the area served by local media outlets at least two or three times a week. And if there isn't a murder to lead with, there is an arson or robbery or violent assault. The individual crime is conflict with a natural story to tell and interesting details.

Statistics, on the other hand, are boring except to those who make a living working with them. It is difficult to make such a story interesting because it is impossible to identify the crime that didn't happen. Something that didn't happen is almost the definition of "non-news." So stories that the crime rate is down get buried in the back of the paper. Alternatively, in discussing the latest gruesome murder in October, there may be a paragraph noting that the metro area only has had sixty murders by mid-October compared to seventy murders by the same time last year. In either case, that news is likely to be missed by those focusing on the headline and the lead paragraph.

The way that news media covers crime will always be distorted because the news media is a business that needs readers or viewers to exist. That is why "man bites dog" stories get a lot of attention even if, for example, the victims of violence by police or illegal immigrants or terrorists only represent a tiny segment of the total numbers of people who are the victims of violent acts. (Not that we shouldn't be concerned about such acts, but the media coverage of such acts is disproportionate to the actual frequency of such acts relative to other acts of violence.)

Posted by: tmm | Aug 27, 2018 10:34:06 AM

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