Reality check for thriller writers
Media attention for crime is increasing even when crime figures are falling. Should we be concerned?
Recently, the Wall Street Journal presented a remarkable service; the exploration of an interactive database of killings committed in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010. The data can be sorted out by the race and sex of killer and victim, the circumstances of the killing, and many more variables. For example, you can see that in Illinois during the last decade 1462 murders in juvenile gangs were committed with a firearm.
This service is just one of many examples of the so-called mediatisation of crime. The news media have long been fascinated by crime. However, during the last decade attention for crime in newspapers and on television shows has exploded. The Internet has further fuelled interest in all things crime-related.
Even though in the Western world crime has been declining since 2001. For example, the FBI recently announced that violent crime in the U.S. had reached a 40-year low in 2011.
Is this increasing media attention for crime, even when crime figures are falling, a reason for concern? Yes, it is, when for example, the image of a particular kind of perpetrator is distorted by the news coverage. A recent study of the Dutch media discourse concerning Antisocial behaviour (ASB) by young Moroccans concluded that this group has been extremely negatively mediatised.
In 422 of the 22,000 Dutch national newspaper articles that mention ASB in the last decade, a direct link is drawn between ethnic youth and ASB. This is only the case in 5% of the cases in 1990; by 2008 the percentage had increased to almost 35%. This is not in line with the stable figures on ASB by young immigrants during the same period. Furthermore, press coverage on ethnic minorities and ASB has also become harsher. Links are drawn between ASB, young (second generation) migrants and words like fear, degeneration, danger in combination with negative value judgements such as calling them scum or street terrorists. As a result, Dutch politicians believe ASB by young Moroccans is a growing and dangerous problem in society.
Journalists who were interviewed for this study, recognized the danger of a vicious circle, with disproportional media references to ethnicity and crime leading to more tension and possibly more crime in society. However, acknowledging the possible dangers of their crime coverage is not the same as acting on it. News media should show more restraint and print only accurate crime figures.
Having said this, the new database of the WSJ leaves us with an interesting question; if news media do present correct statistical crime data, will it lead to a more realistic public view on crime?
Time will tell. Maybe, in the end, only thriller authors will benefit from the new tool. They can verify if their imagination is still realistic or too far fetched. For instance, they can check if a women was ever pushed out of a window in a lover`s triangle. The results show this incident did exactly happen, in 2002, in Texas. A new thriller character has possibly been born.