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Crime Headlines vs. Reality—What does the local coverage of crime teach about the world around you? How do headlines compare to what the police are reporting to the public about crime in their city?

To find out we took a look at the news coverage of crime for one week in four major US cities. We then compared that to what the police reported about crime that same week in those cities. Most of what we found isn’t surprising.

Murder, Shootings, Stabbings and Assaults overwhelmingly dominate crime news coverage

The media covers these types of crime 20-30% of the time, despite the fact that murder represents less than 1% of crimes committed. In Oakland, the city best ranked for accuracy, the police reports show murder as .8% of crime, while the media’s crime coverage focused on murders 62% of the time. If you lived in Oakland and read the news during this week, we’d be surprised if you weren’t shaking in your bed after every creak in the night.

In Oakland, residents would have been better served by information discussing burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts—crimes that many people could protect themselves against and that together made up 57% of the crime in that city.

Even in cities, where larceny was by far and away the biggest crime threat to the population, news coverage focused heavily on violent crimes like murder.

The majority of crimes documented by the police in Dallas were larcenies, making up 52% of crime that week. News coverage of larceny? Nada. We suspect that crime reporting is heavily influenced by what gets viewers attentions and grabs readers.

Maybe rampant theft is too boring to sell papers, but we’re concerned that a problem like theft, which can be addressed by easy to implement and simple solutions, is left to run amok by a populace that’s too busy looking for a murderer in the shadows rather than the pickpocket on their train. Quality of life would improve greatly if the mischief of thieves were better blocked by an aware and protective community.

What you probably didn’t know is—Local crime news is a great source for criminal information that you wouldn’t get from the police.

Two of the cities surveyed had reporters that worked hard to educate the public on criminal justice issues ranging from pending criminal legislation to police misconduct.

We’d like to applaud the efforts of crime reporters in Dallas and New York City for bringing important criminal justice issues to the public’s attention. Here’s how they did:

  • Dallas crime reporters educated the public about criminal justice issues 25% of the time.
  • New York City crime reporters covered criminal justice issues 19.4% of the time

We are especially impressed with reporters in New York City, who advocated for citizen’s rights in their crime reporting. Given the police conduct issues highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, we were excited to find that reporters in NYC had been highlighting civil liberties issues in their reporting well before the protests began. Sample headlines from the week are:

  • “Just How Dangerous is Facial Profiling”
  • “Big Brother Rears Head in New Push for Cameras”
  • “Is It Still Legal to Use Electroshock Treatment on Children and Court Order Electroshock on Adults in New York State”

The Take Away ?

Understand that your local crime coverage is likely flooded by headlines using popular crime buzzwords like “kills,” “shooting,” and “assault.” The city with the highest murder rate, still had less than 1% of crimes committed being murders. Just keep that in mind when reading or watching your local news.

But remember, your local news may be the only place to get informed on issues related to criminal justice, police conduct, and other important legislative issues in your city.

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