Original article appears below foreword.
In the aftermath of recent violent mass-shooting events in the United States along with increased traffic to this particular article, I feel compelled to preface it by saying that this article’s purpose is to put the state of crime in America in proper context.
By many measures we are safer now than we were two and three decades ago, but less so compared to four and five decades ago. While the murder rate is at or near a 50-year low, some of the deadliest and most violent mass-shooting events have happened within the past five years. The point is, when we read or watch news stories about random violent acts, we should always be mindful not to overplay singular events against a mountain of statistical evidence showing we are better off now compared to 20 and 30 years ago.
At the same time, if new trends begin to emerge, like increased frequency or scale of mass-shooting events, we should embrace freedom of speech and have a national conversation about the proper steps to reduce such occurrences. And yes, all options should be on the table, including a conversation about sensible gun safety legislation.
As it relates to the original intent of this article, the national media’s coverage of these mass shooting events combined with the local media’s fixation on robberies, assaults and murder, has a collective desensitizing effect on the citizenry. I don’t think it’s likely that violence in TV and movies makes someone violent, but a constant barrage of violence from all things media likely results in a warped perception of reality for all of us. We are so accustomed to hearing about violent acts that we have decoupled the violent act from reality. It’s like it’s not real. That murder reported on TV happens in the same alternate universe that violent video games exist in, forever safe from affecting our lives. That is, until the day some of us find we awoke in that alternate universe. That happened to the citizens of Newtown, CT last week.
- David K. Sutton — Foreword dated 12/14/2012 and revised on 12/17/2012
If you watch the news you might be under the impression that the United States is in bad shape when it comes to crime. Every night on the local news you hear about murders and other violent crimes. It could lead anybody to believe that society is in free-fall. But is this really the case?
It turns out all major crimes are trending down from their 50-year highs in the 70s, 80s and 90s. In fact, one crime was near a 50-year low in 2010 when indexed per 100,000 people. More on that in a moment. Whether we are talking about assault, vehicle theft, burglary, rape or murder, all indicators are down from their highs.
Combined into two major classifications, violent crimes and property crimes, we can get a snapshot of crime trends over the past 50 years compared to population growth. Violent crimes include rape, murder, assault and robbery. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft and vehicle theft. The chart below shows violent crimes and property crimes indexed per 100,000 people combined with population.
Even as population grows from under 200 million to over 300 million the crime rate (violent and property) per 100,000 people climbs and then falls during the past 50 years. When you watch the news and listen to people talk about society, a common theme is that America is heading in the wrong direction. This chart says otherwise.
Let’s pull some raw numbers from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and display them by Worst Year, Best Year, 2010.
1991 – 24,700
1962 – 8,530
2010 – 14,748
1992 – 109,060
1960 – 17,190
2010 – 84,767
1993 – 1,135,610
1960 – 154,320
2010 – 778,901
1980 – 3,795,200
1960 – 912,100
2010 – 2,159,878
1991 – 1,661,700
1960 – 328,200
2010 – 737,142
For each of these crimes, 2010 was much improved compared to the worst years on record but still higher than the 1960s lows. You might be wondering what the crime index rates per 100,000 look like. For every crime except one the per 100,000 rates are still higher in 2010 compared to the 1960s lows. The one exception is murder.
While the 50-year low for murder per 100,000 was in 1962 and 1963 with 4.6 per 100,000, those years were actually down a bit from the rest of the 1960s which ranged from 4.8 to 7.3. What was the 2010 number? – 4.8 per 100,000 – That’s a tie with 1961. Yes, you read that correctly. The murder rate, indexed to population was at a near 50-year low in 2010. Compare that to the worst year, 1980, when the rate was 10.2 per 100,000.
So what are we to make of these stats? Does it make you feel any differently about the direction we are heading? Personally I blame the news media. The corporations that own the “news” have increasingly applied their entertainment business model to the news division. This has been the case with the national news but in many cases the local news is just as guilty. It means more emphasis on the sensational stories that include crime and violence.
As I’ve shown, crime is not worse now compared to 20 and 30 years ago. In fact, it’s much improved. But these facts appear to contradict what we are fed by the news media. Ask yourself, how does your local news decide what to report on? If you live in or around a major city like I do (Philadelphia) then in the first 10 minutes of the 11pm news you’ve probably heard about 1 or 2 murders (or worse), possibly a rape, and several car accidents and fires. For as many of these events that they do report on there might be many more that they didn’t report. How do they decide? What makes one car accident more important than another? If you start thinking about it like this, the first 10 minutes of the local news broadcast seems arbitrary at best.
Let me take it one step further.
I believe all news, local and national, should be a public service. With all due respect for the victims of violent crimes, does it serve the public to report about a random murder if for no other purpose than to report something sensational? I ask the same about a house fire or even a car accident, although reporting car accidents for traffic purposes is definitely a public service. If reporting a crime to the public can help solve that crime then I believe it is a public service. If not, I believe we can find many more stories that would better serve the public.
A random violent crime, as terrible as it is for those involved, only affects a few people in the viewing area at most. Maybe I sound callous, but isn’t it worse that we all take part in this gruesome experience every day?
Is the common wisdom that things are getting worse based on facts and evidence? -or- Do we all need a collective perception adjustment?
Are we all victims of the news media’s fixation on sensational stories for high ratings?
Of course, if they get the ratings, then we only have ourselves to blame.