Media

We're Safer: Why Don't We Feel Safer?

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 23, 2010

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:08:19

I walked into the Staples in Stoney Creek about a year after the horrific crime against Holly Jones, and a Child Find table was there. They asked if I wanted to register my son...and I said no. They asked if I was concerned about his safety, and again I said no. They mentioned Holly Jones. I said "Let's do the math. There are 5 million or so people in the GTHA. Let's say 1,000,000 of them are little kids. Each one of them leaves their house to play, go to school etc, proabably twice a day. That's 2,000,000 interactions between little kids and the 'big bad world' every day. While the Holly Jones story is certainly horrific, and not to diminish the grief at all - but these stories hit the Toronto area once every 3-4 to three years.

So 2,000,000 x 1095 days = you guessed it, about a one in about 1,000,000,000 chance that a stranger might try and hurt my son. Frankly, if I was enough of an idiot to run my life around odds that unlikely, I'd probably be relying on 6/49 for my retirement." I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

In the meantime, I'll educate my son on what to do on the off chance he gets approached, and let him get on with the important busienss of being a kid: learning problem solving, risk assessment and management, and conflict resolution. Wonder why your 35 yr old son is still in your basement? It might have something to do with that HUGE roll of bubble wrap.
Check out www.freerangekids.wordpress.com for my heroine!

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:36:16

I've long wondered about how 'crime stats' compare per capita between today and, say, 55 years ago.

Just how much more 'dangerous' is the average person's life?

What are the differences between how safe Life was back then and how safe it is now, remembering to factor in scale?

"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."

For me, this excellent editorial leads to a discussion not just about how safe we are, but just how 'aware' we are, and how much of our independence and individuality we've effectively surrendered by throwing our lots in with the modern consuming culture. (Media is, after all, an item of consumption, no matter how some would wish to label it as 'communication'.)

Rob Riemen's 'Nobility of Spirit': read it. Can't recommend it enough, especially after digesting this offering from Editor Ryan.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:48:28

Media is, after all, an item of consumption, no matter how some would wish to label it as 'communication'.

Interesting observation, mystoneycreek. I wonder how much of this tendency would be ameliorated by transforming the news media from a top-down producer of news that is consumed by readers (with a clear separation from the producers and the consumers) into a truly community-based medium in which the members of a community are both producers and consumers, working together to tell themselves their own stories.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-07-23 09:48:46

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:29:22

Ryan, do you mean like www.mattjelly.com? (Darth Vader stories notwithstanding)

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:33:14

My biggest fear is being run over by an SUV driver going 70km/h through a residential area.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:39:35

Ryan, you need to see what Duane Elgin says about the importance of media (and its natural role) in moving forward in 'Voluntary Simplicity', Second Revision.

I won't let the cat out of the bag, but there's some pretty fascinating viewpoints in the book addressing this subject.

(The Library only has the original release from '81...but I've got a copy you can borrow...)

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:42:11

This always makes me think of an episode of South Park; where after hearing on the news how most child abductors are the parents of the child, the parents of South Park banish their kids into the world so the parents don't know where they are and thus can't abduct them.

As for Ryan's comment, I think you hit the nail on the head. The bottom line for news companies, is unfortunately the bottom line. Reporting the news is simply a byproduct of what they really want you to consume, the advertising. No one cares if little Sally did her home work on time, but stick her in a tinfoil balloon and suddenly the whole planet is watching, and that spells much advertising revenue.

Also a big thumbs up for Free Range Kids, my fiancée and I had talked extensively about raising kids (gulp!) and that site is great.

Comment edited by UrbanRenaissance on 2010-07-23 10:43:28

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:11:11

Ryan, do you mean like www.mattjelly.com? (Darth Vader stories notwithstanding)

I mean the community media as a dynamic network, of which sites like mattjelly.com and RTH are a part. Newspapers regard each other as competition for eyeballs and hence ad revenues; but community media benefit from positive network effects when additional entities join the discussion.

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By mdruker (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2010 at 14:12:34

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?

Without denying your overall point, I don't think this is the right reading of those poll results. That those 81% did not notice the difference doesn't mean they feel less safe, just that they don't feel more safe. A five percent decrease in crime is significant and meaningful at the city level, but I wouldn't expect people to notice it in their daily lives.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2010 at 17:55:13

Media feeds on fear. How else would they sell their product?
"If it bleeds, it leads. If it thinks, it stinks." Old newspaper adage.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 24, 2010 at 12:01:43

UrbanRenaissance and South Park are right on the ball. Parents kill several more kids at home in an average weekend in America than school shootings do in an average year. Rapes and child molestation, abductions (usually related to custody battles) and all sorts of other crimes prove that "playing outside" is much more safe than sitting at home - statistically. And if your child is killed

Crime statistics going back more than a few decades need to be met with skepticism because we live in a fundamentally different environment. Crime's always more serious in densely populated cities than small towns, and a lot more people live in cities now. Since this wave of extreme urbanization really took hold, though, it's clear that we've found a lot of solutions that work, as crime has been dropping for decades, despite even more urbanization.

Perhaps the public perception of fear has something to do with the massive increase of cops on our streets, especially downtown, ticketing everyone they can see for everything they can think of. I saw them ticket the ice-cream truck at Bayfront one day. Despite dropping crime, police budgets and prison populations continue to explode, and politicians, papers and pundits continue to support policies which have been shown over and over again not to work. Academics in the field have been showing the numerous faults of "tough-on-crime" measures for decades, and yet we never hear about it.

Harper may be building many more prisons, but he's cut the country's crime prevention budget in half. If it's really about stopping crime and not just hurting "criminals", why slash programs like the prison farms which have been shown so often to work?

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By zippo (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 01:09:47

Undustrial said: "Crime's always more serious in densely populated cities than small towns, and a lot more people live in cities now."

Actually not true. In general, across the country, small urban areas (Population greater than 1,000 and less than 100,000) have higher reported crime rates than rural or large urban (population greater than 100,000) areas.

The highest murder rates in the country are found in the rural areas of of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.

Source: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien...

Comment edited by zippo on 2010-07-26 00:12:05

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By AnneMariePavlov (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:14:19

I was one of the 81% who answered that poll, knowing how simplistic and skewed the answers would be. I have to say that I personally do not feel any safer even thought crime rates are down, because I live in a poor area, where people are getting more and more desperate for any kind of power, not to mention FOOD and gainful EMPLOYMENT, plus the crack problem is visible on every block, and the crimes and break-and-enter home invasion events appear to be getting much more violent and unprovoked.

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By simonge (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 14:02:52

This issue really hits a nerve for me, especially as it relates to raising children. I don't believe the world is any more dangerous than it was a generation ago, yet I believe we generally place more limits on what our kids can do. I agree that the 24-hour news cycle has certainly changed our perspective on safety. Now, if any child is abducted in North America I have a good chance of hearing about it. Whether it's based on the news or our government spending billions on new prisons to support 'getting tough on crime', we live in a pervasive culture of fear. Of course we all want to be safe and know our families are safe. The best way to create safety is be outside in our communities, on our streets, and with our neghbours (and turn off the cable news).

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By Henry and Joe (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 17:40:10

@Undustrial,

Ticketing the ice cream truck - I LOL at that! How can you be so sure that the Bayfront ice cream truck isn't a cover for child abductions that are causing people not to want to come downtown?

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By Binary Optics (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2011 at 23:31:31

Three headline-grabbing Hamilton homicides, all female victims:

Audrey Gleave, a 73-year-old retired teacher and Ancaster resident is killed in "brutal sex slaying" and a 50-year-old schizophrenic homeless man arrested six weeks after the victim's body is found.
http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Crime/2011/02/11/17239006.html

Elham Dashti, a 31-year-old Iranian woman working in downtown Hamilton, is savagely attacked and fatally wounded, left for dead one block from police headquarters. There is no arrest for seven months. When the Iranian government calls for “swift and serious legal pursuit”, within seven days a 25-year-old transient is arrested and charged with her murder.
http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/319093--iran-calls-for-swift-action-in-hamilton-homicide
http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/474383--accused-in-dashti-murder-makes-first-court-appearance

Laura Ann Young, a 37-year-old panhandler who lived on the Mountain, is killed four blocks from police headquarters, her body discarded like garbage. She is the first homicide of 2011. No arrests have yet been made.
http://www.thespec.com/news/local/article/486296--vigil-tonight-for-slain-woman


If one were cynical...

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