Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Crime and Punishment

"A minor crash, a punch and a fight for life" is how the Herald headlines the lead story today. I'm no subeditor, but I suppose "Man attacked after car crash" doesn't look quite as good. The rest of the article is your standard post-assault report; the lack of much of interest to say means that the usual comments are dredged up from friends and neighbours - the victim was "a friendly and quiet man who loved gardening" and who "would never hurt a fly", as if brutally beating (it's now a murder case as the man has since died) a 78-year-old man would be otherwise OK. The Herald broke out the red ink for the "ROAD RAGE" header, because that is a category of story on the same level as 'Politics' or 'Health'. But then, of course, the country and the media are gripped in road rage fever, while I would hazard a guess that 99.9% of New Zealanders' road trips end in nothing more outrageous than pulling (or receiving) the fingers. But that's certainly not front page news.

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:

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.

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?

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

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.


  1. Tell 'have your say' they can halt the search for the answer to violent crime, because it's right there on the Herald website:

    PS I LOVED 'Drugged-up Mexican stabbed mother 25 times'. Just what I'd expect from those Mexican types.

  2. So what do you actually WANT in a newspaper? Stop moaning for a moment and consider. Jesus H Christ.

  3. "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... murder probably deserves far less of the front page than it gets for that fact alone."

    I see. Should newspapers across the world ignore them then, cos they don't happen that often? Should we have more stories about people going to the shops, because that happens quite a bit? Should all stories be given prominence based on 'how often they happen'?

  4. Anonymous - hilarious.

  5. I don't think the herald does analysis. To give an example that I don't think would make a great article, but would definitely be right up the heralds alley (or at least HoS):

    The Royal Commission Report that will now be implemented discusses how the amalgamation will cause significant rates-income redistribution across the region.

    A few simple assumptions, half a days worth of data gathering, and five minutes of calcs, and the Herald could come up with a headline - "Super-city to mean huge rates rises for some Aucklanders" (or something more sensational).

    I predict we will get this headline in 2011 when the first rates bills come out. No doubt it will be personalised by some impoverished Devonport pensioner.

  6. it would have been if nice they hadn't taken the waikatere council's figures up the arse. but then...

    the point is, they don't have the manpower to grind out stories. someone has to tell them and, even if it's not actually true (school police call outs for instance) it gets into a loop and goes unquestioned.

    to wit: anyone, in any walk of life who is hard-pressed, will gladly take handouts.

  7. "(it's now a murder case as the man has since died)"

    Manslaughter, surely. It's not murder unless a jury says it is.