And this is the point. I'm not claiming that murders and crime in general aren't news of importance to people - they certainly are. I'm simply claiming that they're not the only news in town, and they shouldn't trump other things of more real importance to more people. I guess that I am also saying that they are poorly reported as well, but that's another issue. It seems clear that this emphasis on violence is no mistake - unfortunately, blood sells. Also unfortunate is the amount of influence the media has over peoples' beliefs in this area. For example, a survey of New Zealanders, published in Monday's Herald, found that only 11 per cent of New Zealand city-dwellers felt safe in their city centre at night - and they cited "media coverage of crime" as one of the major reasons.
A fascinating article in yesterday's paper - yes, yesterday's New Zealand Herald - had more on this phenomenon:
So, most people can't see any increase in crime in their own neighbourhoods - it's just the other places in the country where their only reference is the media. The reason for the publication of the survey results is that someone (it's unclear from the article whether it is the police themselves or criminologist Michael Rowe) has analysed police statistics showing that the murder rate has halved over the past 20 years, from a peak of 21 per million people between 1985 and 1992 to 12 per million today. The first thing that ought to be said is that one's chances of being murdered are (and were even at the peak) pretty microscopic, and murder probably deserves far less of the front page than it gets for that fact alone. The second, and possibly more important, point is that the mainstream media, led by New Zealand's Newspaper of Record (TM), are telling the country - albeit (mostly) implicitly - that murders and violent crime in general are radically on the rise. But they're not; you're only half as likely to get murdered in New Zealand today than you were 20 years ago. So why does the media not reflect that?
An institute survey of 1400 people in four parts of New Zealand - including South Auckland - found that 80 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that the country's crime rate was rising. Only 4 per cent disagreed.
Yet the same survey - which has yet to be published - found that only a quarter of the people surveyed believed crime was rising in their own neighbourhoods.
When asked where they got their information about the national crime rate, people said from the media.
I've already given my answer - blood sells. Even this article, with its fascinating, iconoclastic statistics, is poor in other areas; the second half of the article is dedicated to detailed consideration of why the statistics might be misleading, even though Dr Rowe implies that, if anything, the statistics would underrepresent the drop since the 1980s. No consideration is given either to why the rate might have dropped or why people think the opposite, apart from that last, anaemic sentence that stands out at the end of the quote above like a sore thumb. Infuriatingly, the article in the paper ends with this ad for the Herald website, which manages to give the finger to any intelligent person who read the article:
What's the answer to violent crime? Have your say at nzherald.co.nz
Another serious issue is that, given how much column space the Herald dedicates to crime and violence, very little investigative journalism seems to be done on it. Why has it taken so long to find out about the murder statistics? Why have they come from an academic, rather than a journalist? The question must be asked again about the article directly next door on page A5 - evidently less important than boy racers, and knights and dames - which reports that an Official Information Act request by a penal reform group called Rethinking Crime and Punishment (RCP) has led to the finding that ACT's proposed 'three strikes' law would not actually have saved any lives. During the election, Rodney Hide claimed that 77 lives would have been saved if a 'three strikes' law had been in place, because the murderers would already have been in prison. RCP's figures show that this is complete bollocks, and none of those killers would have been in prison due to 'three strikes'. To be fair, the article - especially the headline, "'Three strikes' comes a cropper" - and today's analysis by Patrick Gower both come down on ACT and say it damages the policy's credibility. But the damage has largely been done - Hide and his crony David Garrett are already in parliament. The time for the Herald to blow the whistle on these numbers was during the election, when Hide made the brazen claim. Again, it was left up to non-journalists to break this significant story.
I would like to think that more debate will follow in the media about these statistics, the media's use - or non-use - of them, and the way that they negatively influence both political discourse and people's general happiness. But I wouldn't hold my breath.