With the obligatory caveat that voluntary web polls are non-representative, it's interesting to note the results on the Spectator's current web poll, which posits:
New statistics show crime in Hamilton has decreased at more than the national average. Do you feel safer now than 3 to 5 years ago?
18.97% of respondents answered "Yes", whereas 81.03% - the overwhelming majority - answered "No".
Given that we are objectively and measurably safer from crime than were were three to five years ago, why do so many people feel less safe?
One major culprit is that our perception of safety is coloured by the way our information about the world is filtered.
An inevitable feature of the news media is that they focus most of their journalistic attention on extraordinary outliers - people, events and incidents that fall far outside the norm.
This only makes sense. It's hardly newsworthy when someone wakes up, has a shower, gets dressed, eats breakfast, goes to work, puts in eight hours, comes home, has dinner, watches TV for a while, and then goes to bed without incident.
What makes something newsworthy is precisely its extraordinary nature. As a result, the news are filled with reports of extraordinary events in general, and extraordinarily bad behaviour in particular.
The inevitable result of a sustained daily exposure to the news is a pervasive selection bias that gives disproportionate attention to extraordinary events over commonplace events and creates a perception that such events are more common than they really are. Regular consumers of the news are thereby inclined to believe that their community is more dangerous than it really is.
This is a well-understood cognitive bias, but it's a particularly damning indictment of the "if it bleeds it leads" approach that many news media entities follow.
It is not surprising that people who get most of their news from TV, with its more intensely visual orientation, are more likely to overestimate the incidence of crime in their community than people who get most of their news from print.
Another factor in this is the increasing globalization of breaking news. A particularly gruesome or titillating crime committed anywhere in the world will appear in the local media. Such incidents not only encourage 'copycat' crimes in other areas, but also further contribute to the (false) perception that horrifying dangers lurk around every corner.
Unfortunately, mere statistics proving that this perception is false have little emotional resonance.
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