The Grim Truth About True Crime Drama

Does what you watch on television have an impact on crime?

Perhaps not as far as the actual commission of crime, but certainly as far as how crime is perceived, say researchers. While results are mixed when it comes to the question of whether watching violence makes one more prone to violent acts, the question of perception has been settled. Among the headliner shows of the new research: Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted.

These shows, and several more like them, profile crimes that have taken place, and for some reason or another, have had the trail go cold. No one has been arrested for these crimes, and although suspects may have been identified, they are missing. In some cases, the crimes may be a decade or more old. And both of these shows, along with others, post a tip hotline, a toll-free number that allows viewers to call in with tips about criminal’s whereabouts. Anonymity is (for the most part) preserved on these hotlines, though what steps the shows are now taking to ensure that call records are expunged from computers in this modern-day era of caller ID are still unclear.

Researchers at the University of Florida reviewed the logs of these and other “true crime” dramas. What they found was a disproportionate amount of air time logged on violent crimes, with murder and forcible rape (half the FBI’s “violent crime” category) taking center stage. For every other crime profiled, including assault, home invasion, burglary, larceny, fraud and the like, the researchers say that 1.7 murders were profiled, alongside 1.1 rapes. On every segment, therefore, the researchers say that approximately 78% of the time, the case being shown or talked about is a violent one, and half of every segment is focused on murder.

So what? So, say the researchers, this leads viewers to see a skewed perception of crime. During a controlled test, researchers asked a series of questions in a before-and-after scenario. The “after” portion came after showing one or more episodes of a true-life crime drama, such as those profiled above. Among the questions asked:
1. How much crime is there in the United States, in your opinion?
2. How much of this crime is violent (murder, rape, assault, etc) and how much is non-violent (larceny, burglary, etc.)?
3. How many murders would you estimate there were last year?
4. How many crimes would you estimate were committed last year in the United States?
5. Where would you say the most crime takes place? Why?

The results were unusual, not for what took place, but how much the views changed. Amount of crime estimates soared, as did the estimates of murders, after the episodes were viewed. Also, although the proportions of crime given were generally not in line with actual numbers, the disconnection factor also increased dramatically after the episodes were viewed. Whereas pre-viewing audiences estimated that one in ten crimes is a murder on average (the actual number is far lower), post-viewing audience kicked it up to around one in six.

This, argue the researchers, the dominance of murder and other violent crimes within such “true crime” dramas misrepresents criminal activity as a whole. Worse, it creates the perception of an outsized problem, in essence turning a molehill into one of the Alps. But one thing that the researchers did not mention, and which deserves note, is the fact that both the popular media and the political powers-that-be have a vested interest in such a viewpoint as these dramas present.

The media has, for many years now, realized that “if it bleeds, it leads;” murder and other violent crimes garner ratings, while small-fry shoplifting gets at best a polite yawn. Even the fact that shoplifting and employee theft cost retailers billions of dollars annually is greeted with scant interest. Therefore, it is in the interest of the media powerhouses to focus on the dramatic and the shocking; a wonderful example of such focus has been demonstrated in the recent attention given to the Ramsey murder case. For the attention-seeking press, this case has it all: a helpless victim in the six-year-old JonBenet, the relatively creepy self-confessed slayer, the fact that the case has been cold for most of a decade and the more than salient nod to the prurient interest with the titillating facts that the victim was a proto-sexual symbol (a beauty pageant contestant) and that the victim appeared to have been sexually assaulted. And the fact that the conflicts in the Middle East, the political aspirations and problems of any number of elected leaders, and similarly gripping stories were shoved aside by the ten-year-old case lends further credence to the truism of the media: “if it bleeds, it leads!”

The media, of course, has long pointed to the fact that shows such as America’s Most Wanted do not air crimes until some time has passed, and that such a policy restricts them necessarily to those crimes for which a person may still be brought to justice. The statute of limitations for most petty offenses is not great and frequently has expired by the time the case is declared cold. However, the more violent (and therefore the more heinous) the offense, the longer law enforcement has to collar the perpetrator. This logic, of course, fails when one considers higher-order non-violent felonies; grand larceny, burglary and grand theft all possess long statutes of limitations, yet they are non-violent crimes by FBI definition. Such property crimes rarely make the headlines of the “true crime” drama.

Likewise, political warriors, incumbents and upstarts alike, have managed immense political mileage out of portrayals of opponents as “weak on crime,” or themselves as “tough.” Many of the current “three-strikes” laws are monuments to such hubris; scientific studies show no reduction in recidivism or crime that is directly or indirectly attributable to the laws and instead can only point to a rapidly mounting tax bill for prisons and jails as the result. But the “tough on crime” concept has worked, and worked very well for many politicians. Ex-President Ronald Reagan targeted Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as being “soft on crime” after convicted murderer Willie Horton was released on a weekend parole pass and killed again while at liberty. The allegation dogged Dukakis and was instrumental in his defeat. No election since then (1984) has managed to keep crime, and especially violent crime, out of the debates and rhetoric.

For the few purists that care about fact and not the fiction of our mainstream media and political spin doctors, we include a small sample of statistics gleaned from the 2004 Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI.

Total number of property crimes reported in 2004 (includes burglary, larceny-theft,
motor vehicle theft, and arson): 10,328,255
Total number of violent crimes reported in 2004 (includes murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault): 1,367,009
Total number of murders reported: 16,137
Only 1.18% of all VIOLENT crimes were murders and less than 12% of all crimes were violent.

Put another way, in the US in 2004

One violent crime occurred every 23.1 seconds.
– One murder every 32.6 minutes
– One forcible rape every 5.6 minutes
– One robbery every 1.3 minutes
– One aggravated assault every 36.9 seconds
One property crime occurred every 3.1 seconds.
– One motor vehicle theft every 25.5 seconds
– One burglary every 14.7 seconds
– One larceny/theft every 4.5 seconds

Perception, they say, is often stronger than reality. Especially when nobody looks at the reality in the first place�

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