“Facts Don’t Win Elections”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently reflected upon the disconnect between crime statistics and popular beliefs about violent crime.

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.

There are several explanations that can be offered for that disconnect, but undoubtedly, the media bears considerable responsibility. Not only do news sources–particularly television news–focus on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but the number of movies and popular television shows that feature crime fighters of one sort or another (everything from the multiple versions of Law and Order and NCIS to lawyer shows to cops and robbers) sometimes seem to dwarf other kinds of subject matter.

It isn’t just that the media report so prominently on local crime incidents. In the age of globalization, we see reports from all around the world. Did a bomb go off in a London subway? It makes the evening news. Was someone murdered in Paris? It makes the evening news. The impression is that danger lurks everywhere.

It isn’t all that innocent, however, as Brayton points out.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

Facts. Evidence. Reality. Next to a good story, I guess they don’t stand much of a chance.


  1. Thanks, Sheila.
    In addition to the facts about crime we do not believe, all of a sudden, at least two years ago the middle class began increasing in income.
    No opposition party member could ever admit that.
    I will admit not admitting that things are economically getting better is not as evil selling violent crime.
    Perception is not reality.
    Demonizing is our reality.

  2. If the national crime rate is going down, and I do believe facts from qualified sources, it matters little to people who live in areas where crime has gone up – especially violent crimes. Indianapolis is a good example; last year we had the highest homicide rate in our history, as of last month the homicide rate was UP 11% from the same time period last year. This was reported in the Star; was that a fact? And does it matter to us that nationally the crime rate has gone down? Do we relax our vigilance as we go about our daily – and nightly routines here because crime has gone down elsewhere?

    During Mayor Peterson’s administration, the on-line version of the Star provided access to 911 calls which came directly – and immediately – from Indiana Homeland Security. You could plug in your address, or an address in Marion County, and see what criminal activities had taken place during the past week or month. It was only basic police call information but, it was vital information.

    We do need to know of those violent crimes that are sweeping this country; the mass shootings and killings are facts which show the number of crimes may have gone down but…has the number of victims gone up? Twenty-six dead in one school shooting by one man, 12 dead in one theater shooting by one man, 49 dead in one gay bar shooting by one man, 5 police dead in one attack by one man closely followed by 2 police dead in one shooting by one man. Does that total FIVE crimes in the fact count or it the count FORTY NINE crimes by the body count? Both numbers are facts but how are they presented in the crime rate report?

    Just the facts, ma’am!

  3. Wow! Major error on my part, I should be flogged. That should read NINETY-FOUR body count not 49. You will probably need to stand in line to volunteer to be the flogger and it shouldn’t count as a crime.

  4. I wouldn’t call the media’s actions “all that innocent” – they know exactly what they’re doing, and don’t care about its effect on society.

    They may benefit in a different way than the NRA and other FUD-mongers, but they’re just as immoral and, in a way, more culpable because a little perspective & analysis of the news could work wonders. It’s been at least 15-20 years since I’ve seen perspective or analysis that deserved the name, even in the print media.

  5. These crime stats are all percentages of the population. The population has grown. Thus, more incidents of crime, but not necessarily a higher percentage of crime. Meanwhile, the hours in the day have not grown. More crime to report every day because there is in fact more incidents of crime each day than there was ten years ago or twenty years ago. It appears that things are out of control when perhaps what is really out of control is population growth.

  6. Well, JoAnn, I’m not going to get in line to flog you. So, you can relax a little about one of us.

    Sheila, while reading the first paragraph of today’s blog my mind immediately wondered where those statistics can be found. I will check Ed Brayton’s blog post for the source. If it isn’t there, could you guide us to the actual source?

    Like JoAnn, I also thought of the increase in murders in Indy and also Chicago. While they are mostly linked to gangs, those numbers have definitely increased. Living in a rural area gives me a sense of security from violent crime. Perhaps this sense of security is naive, but if there is any violent crime in rural areas it is almost always a domestic crime.

    The NRA does get more and more powerful and the gun manufacturers do gain more and more buyers. Fear is a very powerful motivator. Most of the republicans in my area are also very vocal about the second ammendment and “No one is taking away their guns”. They have been gullible and have taken the bait. Sigh………

  7. I read Ed Brayton’s blog post and am thinking now that maybe the media should be held accountable for the increase in the fear of crime and the false beliefs that violent crime has increased.

    If the actual statistics were presented to the public, along with the sources and their methods of attaining the percents that they publish, I think most people would believe that they are being fed false information. You know, we can’t have actual facts thrown at us and be expected to believe them.

  8. The 24 hour news cycle will end up being the worst gift the 20th century has given mankind.

  9. The news media’s primary goal is to sell advertising; all other activities are incidental. I watch the local weather ( which has become more dramatized, I assume to pique viewer interest), I can’t bother w the balance of the broadcasts – they’re almost useless. I don’t bother w national network news. I watch BBC in America and the News Hour, plus Nightly Business Report. They are all becoming increasingly commercial television, but at least they work on content and presenting multiple views on key topics.

  10. I have another way to establish my views on crime. The old fashion way. My experiences and those of my friends. We just don’t experience crime. Or terrorism. Or plagues.

    Is it possible that some dark and stormy night we will? It has always been.

    Now I have to mentally take into account that my experience is not everyone’s mostly because there are people poorer than me who have to exist in neighborhoods that breed predators just like they breed rats and roaches. I would like to help them move up and out. That’s why I’m a liberal.

    Life has always been risky. I was born in a sweet spot though.

    So what’s different for others isn’t in the statistics it’s in the entertainment. Our screens tell us that we are entitled to live risk free. Our world should be perfect. Our health and welfare and prosperity guaranteed.

    Our guns are our binkies. Our politicians superheroes. Our police and mitary superheroes.

    It seems that I have always known that I will die. There could be a lot of pain in the transition. The two times that I’ve come close were not that traumatic though. Another time will come inevitably.

    Actually one of the scariest things that I’ve experienced lately was the RNC. But my secret weapon has a button on it to protect me. It’s labeled “off”.

  11. Everyone avoids the real issue in American: race. Look at the homicide map of Indianapolis. Obviously the murders occur primarily in black neighborhoods. Everyone knows that: no one talks about it. So what comes of that in our politics? People like Trump gain credibility because they are not “politically correct” and are willing to “call it like it is,” meaning they are willing to voice the concerns of the silenced lower class whites who are forced by economics to live closer to or even in those “bad” areas. The NRA gives voice to deep-seated fears, appears credible, and uses that to sell more guns. And liberals, afraid of insulting their most loyal constituency, refuse to speak openly of the real problems, never discussing the real dysfunctions in the black community leading to these crimes, and therefore never proposing solutions that can work. Really the Democrats do a wonderful job selling guns and enabling law and order politicians, don’t they?

  12. I would like to go back to JoAnn’s comment about the stats and add something. While the incidents of violent crime may have lessened in percentage of population, the number of victims appears to have climbed. This is due entirely to the easy access to military weapons. So the fear that people have should not be discounted, but rather understood using a wider point of view.

  13. Like with Mr. Trump and his loyal followers. They would still believe he was wonderful if he did a serial murder. You don’t need facts as long as you have ideology. After all, we are in Indiana.

  14. Poverty is a failure of business. In the perfect world the goal of business would be a good paying job for everyone. The problem is there is no such thing as business. Only businesses all competing for the biggest share of the pie.

    Due to that fault and others we need government regulating all of the businesses and backstopping their failures.

    Theoretically government could end poverty with massive wealth transfer and that could well significantly reduce crime too but we are afraid of that solution.

    So we take baby’r steps and just make do.

    Maybe that’s the best we can do.

    Maybe not.

  15. It’s typically futile to ask people here to read but here’s an academic paper that addresses race versus other variables in the crime problem.


    The Classics Comics version can be found in the conclusion.

    What it concludes about the topic that Overit is wrestling with here is that nobody knows for sure if race correlates with crime (more research is required) but it seems unlikely when you consider more of the correlated variables that have been established.

    It is kind of a convenient myth though because it blames others. That’s always comfortable.

  16. Murder headlines here or abroad sell advertising as well as guns and ammo courtesy of the NRA, the front for the gun industry. It’s a win-win situation for the few and a disaster for the rest of us. We can and will do better when the Supreme Court some day reinstates its 1939 decision that militia means militia.

  17. Phyllis, facts run from the election.

    The less qualified a candidate is compared to the competition the more inconvenient facts are and the more mythology is required to fill in the gaps.

  18. The real diabolical media message is not misreporting crime but implying that, unlike any other people who have ever lived, we are entitled to no risk.

  19. Pete, I read the academic paper you posted at 11:51am, and you’re correct about the conclusion amounting to a Classic Comics quick overview. Conclusions are the lazy person’s savior. The conclusion called for more empirical research pointed toward prevention rather than reaction which is neither good nor bad, but doesn’t give us much to chew on in the interim unless we’re graduate students looking for a writing topic on which to expand. I’m not discounting your locating this academic paper, and I applaud anyone who takes the time and effort to search for published studies that might shed some light on violent crime, poverty, race, and urban areas.

    Edward Banfield, late of Harvard, Professor of Government Emeritus, received scathing criticism from academia following his publication of “The Unheavenly City” back in 1970 or so. Unless my uncle had not graduated from the Harvard School of Design where he was introduced to Banfield’s work, I’d most likely never have read any of Banfield’s research. Following Banfield’s being roasted at the stake by his academic buddies, it doesn’t surprise me that academics shy away from taking on intensive research into the issue of the urban crisis.

  20. BSH, I agree with what you say about that paper.

    I wish that I had a bunch of academic slaves working for me (as undoubtedly Sheila does) so I could direct further research but, alas, I didn’t pay my PhD dues so it ain’t happening.

    So perhaps we are quite without durable data on the correlation between race and crime.

    Considering that can we use common sense? Only infrequently.

    Skin color and crime seem disconnected to me like fish and bicycles. To me it’s implausible that they should correlate.

  21. Pete,

    Academic slaves exist at every major research university. They are called Graduate Research Assistants. The pay is nominal unless it covers out-of-state tuition, but the experience is priceless.

  22. Wikipedia about Banfield:

    “The black poor, Banfield suggested, were no different from other (white) lower-class Americans: they had no fondness for work, no strong family ties, an easy acceptance of criminal behavior, no brief for schooling, and no future perspective. Banfield argued that even well-pruned government programs could not undo the harm caused by class differences.[4]”

    I went to college at Va Tech in 1960. I saw while there quite a bit of W Va, Tennessee and Kentucky then. Much of what I saw was poor beyond my imagining and not much different than our ghettos today culturally.

    But lots of white skin.

    If you go back there today you would see lots of signs of problems solved thanks to Senator Byrd and others but not so much progress in the ghettos.


  23. Peggy Hannon: I sincerely hope Donald Trump doesn’t “end up being the worst gift the 20th century has given mankind.”

  24. Pete, good for researching Banfield which I knew you would. Now, rather than depending on Wikipedia, I’d suggest picking up a copy of Banfield’s “The Unheavenly City” or order it from Amazon in its paperback format. It’s a relatively short and easy read. After reading it, then you can chew on it for a while and make your own decisions rather than relying on the folks who contribute their opinions to Wikipedia.

    Yes, I am more than aware of the depth of poverty in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia around Blacksburg, the overwhelming poverty in the mountains of East Tennessee, and the mountains of East Kentucky and North Georgia (when considering North Georgia, think scenes from “Deliverance”). Like you, I did not come of age as a child in any of those areas; however, I did have to pass through, drive through those particular areas from my childhood home to the East Coast (Virginia Beach) where I lived for 25+ years.

    Banfield’s premise re: those living in generational poverty (without regard to race) focused on a lack, maybe even a paucity, of “future orientation”. Strange how conversations overheard as a child take on such meaning…I distinctly remember overhearing my grandfather speak about some of the men who worked for him. Some of the men, he believed, had a future and some of the men had no future. The difference was between those men who wanted to be paid at the end of every day vs those men who could delay receiving their pay until Friday afternoon. Now, please know this was not scientific investigation, just one man’s observations made over a period of time.

  25. I encourage readers here to send this blog to their local TV and radio stations and newspapers.
    The ‘good news’ is not often reported, but the fact that crime statistics are going down IS news.
    As those in the news you use to report it. Ask friends to do contact the local press and media to do the same. Ask for the news editor or news director or crime reporter.

  26. Correction: “ASK” those in the news you use to report it. Ask friends to also contact local press and media to report on the decline in crime.

  27. Americans it seems have always it seems have had a big fear factor injected into politics. My personal memories go back to the Red Scare of the Joe McCarthy era, which has morphed into fear of Putin. We had the so called missile gap in the 1960 election and the Domino Scenario. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s there were the Weatherman and Black Panthers. Attempts were made to link the anti-war protestors with the Communist Block.

    As an aside humans carry the primitive binary fight or flight response. There is the other piece to this of the Alpha Male and dominance. Many years ago I was a part of the Foster Care System. What shocked me was the lack of empathy among these children for others and the anger. If you could impose your physical dominance over others it was a valid behavior in their world. It seemed they had grown up in world without experiencing love, protection or respect, so if you cannot respect your own value – how can you possibly respect it in others.

    If you are brought up in “good family” teasing and taking a toy from a younger sibling happens. However, the parents are expected to set it right. Sharing and empathy is not an innate behavior, it must be learned – Socialization. If learned behavior is that might makes right one more step is that a firearm reinforces that might. The next step is to select those among us least able to defend themselves for what ever reason and exploit them.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seems to predict behavior:
    Physiological needs
    Safety needs
    Love and belonging
    Self-transcendence – The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.

  28. I like the term “future orientation” but can see why those in the ghettos can’t even comprehend it. They have no future unless they are truly exceptional.

    Think of the thoughts stuck in the heads of a black man and a white cop approaching each other in the dark night in a ghetto neighborhood.

    Some think that the black man owns all of those thoughts. Some, the white cop.

    I see two differently dysfunctional cultures.

  29. “The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.”

    Hey Ed Brayton; I just turned on the 5:00 news here in Indianapolis, IN, and the Breaking News announced a popular Little League coach was shot to death on the west side today. Another man opened his door and was shot to death on the northeast side today. Updated news from last month – that was just yesterday, remember – released a drawing of the suspect who murdered two men and shot a small child in the hand. The off duty Indianapolis police officer who shot and injured an Indianapolis detective; fled to Cincinnati where he held a stand-off with Ohio police has been charged with attempted murder. This is after last year’s history making murder rate here and the 11% increase in murders this year for the same time period.

    I am thrilled speechless to know violent crime is down. I learned today that the getaway driver for my mugger was finally sentenced to 16 years; 8 in DOC, 4 in Community Corrections, 4 years suspended with 2 years on probation. The crime happened 2 1/2 years ago; could Ed’s statistics possibly be slow in getting to him and, in turn, getting to the public? Yes; I agree the population has increased which exponentially increases the number of crimes and the data is figured on percentages. I also agree that we are inundated with crime based TV programs and movies but…most of them end with the bad guys getting caught and punished. This gives us hope; of course all hope is dashed when we become the victim of a crime, especially a violent crime, or a loved one is murdered opening their door.

    Thank Ed but I will stick with the reality of the news reports of local crimes to raise my awareness of my surroundings and the national crimes to know it is not only here. Of course there is also contained in that message the fact that there is nowhere to go to escape crime and we still face the possibility of becoming a crime rate statistic – based on percentages of the population. There isn’t enough time left on news broadcast to report any good news that may have happened.

    I have been counted in those percentages as victim of a violent crime and had my 15 minutes of fame, which lasted two weeks, but due to those percentages I do not feel assured I am safe from becoming a repeat victim of violent crime. Does Ed have any statistics on those percentages?

  30. JoAnn, worrying may be fun but offers little in terms of solutions. The media loves worriers. They want you as emotional as possible so you’ll be anxious for the next update of breaking news. It’s hard to beat flight or fight for raw emotion.

    I personally don’t know much about Indianapolis but, given its size I’m guessing a murder a day or more has been the trend for many decades.

    If it jumps to two on Tuesday that’s not a trend.

    If you need protection buy a big dog. That’s not as big a risk to yourself your family and the public as buying a gun.

    One other thing. You agreed to the risks when you were born.

    Take comfort from the fact we are among the safest to ever walk the planet.

  31. Pete; this is without a doubt the dumbest bunch of comments you have ever posted on this blog…and you post all day and into many evenings and appear to be intelligent. I am not worried; I am PISSED, the crime “rate” refers to percentages which does not mean there are fewer crimes – there are more crimes because there are more people. Look at the numbers, not the percentages, consider the body count. How many mass killings have happened over the past five years in this country and what is the total body count? Then think about earlier years during your lifetime – how many mass killings did you read about in this country. And 9/11 does’t count; that was a terrorist attack by foreigners. You are allowed to count the recent terrorist attacks perpetrated by home-grown terrorists because they are part of this county’s daily violent crime rate, percentages, and body count. I haven’t even included those who were wounded but lived during the mass killings in my earlier post but they are part of the body count of violent crimes in this country. I am forced to agree that the “rate” is down but the number of crimes is up and continuing to rise so the “rate” is meaningless compared to the number of dead bodies.

    And NO, I did not agree to the risk when I was born. You need a rest because you have run out of intelligent comments to post with this one. I am as aghast at what you just said as I am at this evening’s news broadcast with two new murders here during the span of a few hours.

  32. Obviously JoAnn the media is very happy with your emotional level.

    Cancel my advice about the big dog. It would be superfluous.

    If I’m ever in the market for censorship I’ll know where to go. Fortunately I’m an adult and do it myself.

  33. JoAnn Green is spot on. Nobody cares about national statistics when your own community is becoming less safe. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. So is crime.

  34. Shelia – Timely explanation, thanks. But facts are useless in the face of thoughtless Trump supporters including Conservative media. Other media are also prone to not let facts get in the way of a good story. It peeves me when Liberal media leans over backwards to give the impression they are balanced and Conservative media never does. A writer in today’s Star, Letters, tried to make a point about the education level of Trump supporters by using old stats of past elections concerning conservative voters. Trump is a new phenomenon and his supporters cannot be compared to any other GOP voters of the past. Past voters were at least sane, but Trump supporters seem to lack education, reason and sanity.

Comments are closed.