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Why The Public Perception Of Crime Exceeds The Reality

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One theme of the Republican convention last week was the alarming level of crime. That theme was central to Donald Trump's acceptance speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DONALD TRUMP: Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities.

SIEGEL: That prompted this rebuttal from President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The violent crime rate in America has been lower during my presidency than any time in the last three, four decades.

SIEGEL: So why does the public perception of crime exceed the reality of the threat? Well, you could say it's a case of terrorism actually succeeding, making people feel vulnerable to random attack. And there have been increases in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. But is there also a fear of crime driven by what we and others in the news media report on? Well, Nikki Usher has been examining that question. She's an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. Welcome to the program.

NIKKI USHER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Are the news media over-reporting violent crime in America?

USHER: So what we know is that the news media has always over-reported violent crime. This has been something that's been pervasive even since the '70s. You know, if it bleeds it leads, particularly in local television news. But what's happened now have been some pretty significant changes to the news media itself. And part of that is driven by the acceleration of the 24/7 news environment. So you have all news media competing for the same attention span at the same time. This creates a new reality for news production.

SIEGEL: You have studied newsrooms around the country, including ours...

USHER: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...To see how they go about making these decisions. In a nutshell, what have you learned about newsrooms and deciding to go with violent crime stories?

USHER: So today in most modern metropolitan newsrooms, there's a breaking news team that is explicitly devoted to up-to-the-minute updates of web content. And so these people are sitting there sort of like the cops reporter has traditionally with the scanner. But their driving motive is to get the latest news online as much as possible. You know you can get a reliable amount of web traffic if you post a crime story. Now, of course, this is sort of circular, right? If you keep posting crime stories and that keeps getting a reaction from people, you'll post more crime stories.

SIEGEL: Do you think that part of what's happening is that fears of terrorism and arguments over the use of guns take a given story - some guy shoots three people someplace in the country - and immediately attaches big questions of national policy?

USHER: So I think the most interesting thing about the compounding effect of terrorism is that it plays into yet another fear that people have. And one of the things we know is that news organizations help people form their understanding about the world. So with increased coverage of terrorism, more people are thinking about terrorism as part of their daily world experience. This is compounded in another way, though, because now you have an entire conversation of people taking place online through Twitter, through comments on news stories. And so there's almost a compounding effect as people remind each other why there's a reason to be scared.

SIEGEL: But I'm trying to think - I mean, I suppose if I read that in a particular area where there are known to be lots of gangs - I'm very concerned for the people who might be caught up in that somehow, but I'm not personally concerned about that. If I hear that somebody who has declared allegiance to ISIS has just walked into a random building and started shooting, I can feel some possible vulnerability to that attack. Those two events are different in the way that I would perceive them.

USHER: So there's actually an effect called the mean world syndrome. People who spend a lot of time with media content tend to think the world is a more violent place regardless of where that violence actually takes place. I think there's also...

SIEGEL: ...You're not just talking about news reports on television. You're talking about...

USHER: People.

SIEGEL: ...Also fiction on television.

USHER: Yeah. I mean, people - the line that was used when these studies of cultivation by Gerbner and Gross first came about was that people from the crib to the grave grow up with television. And now they also grew up with the internet amplifying what - and also adding to what's shown on television. So from the cradle to the grave, you're getting all of these images about violence around you. And that's how you orient yourself to the world.

SIEGEL: Professor Nikki Usher of George Washington University. Thanks for talking with us.

USHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.