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Scared Witless

The fear in her voice reverberated throughout talk-radio land. The elderly woman was among a parade of callers who passionately supported the caning of 18-year-old Michael Fay, who'd pled guilty to vandalism in Singapore. When the host asked why such a brutal punishment was appropriate, she replied that something, anything, had to be done to stop the epidemic of crime. She went on to say that she was unable to walk to her car right in front of her house without fear of attack. Noting that the caller lived in Foxborough, a reasonably bucolic suburb of Boston, the host asked if she or anyone she knew had been a victim of crime or even an attempted crime in the past five years. "No." "Well, then how do you know it's so dangerous out there?" "Because they say it is." "Who are they?" "The people on television."

In January of this year, George Gerbner, who has been studying the social impact of television for decades, released a draft report on TV violence that comes the closest to connecting cause and effect. Dividing subjects into light viewers (under two hours of television viewing daily), medium viewers (two to four hours daily), and heavy viewers (more than four hours daily), he concluded:

"[H]eavy viewers are more likely than comparable groups of light viewers to overestimate one's chances of involvement in violence; to believe that one's neighborhood is unsafe; to state that fear of crime is a very serious problem; and to assume that crime is rising, regardless of the facts of the case.... Other results show that heavy viewers are also more likely to have bought new locks, watchdogs and guns for protection." The simple facts are these. Serious crime is not skyrocketing in this country. It is leveling off and, by some measures, even on its way down. But fear of crime - the obsessive, paralytic fear of being a victim - is at a fever pitch. According to Washington-based pollster, Peter Hart, 13 percent of the public fingered crime as the nation's number-one issue in January 1993. Today that statistic is 43 percent. A dispassionate look at the facts suggests we are not engulfed in an unprecedented wave of criminality. As University of Texas criminologist, Mark Warr noted, "Crime is not going up.... Violent crime, especially, has been essentially flat for a decade." Moreover, the nation's murder rate was frequently higher in the 1970s, a decade in which we were not nearly as consumed by fear of crime. People get their perceptions of the risk of crime from television. According to the New York-based Tyndall Report, the 1,506 minutes of air-time devoted to crime on the three major networks' nightly newscasts made it the third-hottest topic last year. More significant, those 1,506 minutes represent more than a doubling of the time allotted to the issue as recently as 1990, and nearly a 300-minute increase over 1992. Using a different methodology, the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs reported that the number of crime-related stories on the network newscasts in 1993 more than doubled from the previous year, a level of coverage completely out of proportion with the crime rate. And the number of murder related stories tripled. The programmers are quick to say they're just telling it like it is, that it's a nasty world out there and we'd better pay heed. They are certainly succeeding in turning the grandmother who called into the radio talk show - and millions like her - into virtual shut-ins. And in doing so, they are pulling off a dangerous and cynical con.

The above is excerpted from an article by Mark Jurkowitz in Media Culture Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, a publication of the Institute for Alternative Journalism. This is an excellent publication for those interested in studying media issues. Send $18 (or $36 for institutions) for a year's subscription of six issues to: Media Culture Review, 77 Federal Street, San Francisco, CA. 94107. (415) 284-1420.

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