Sensationalism vs. Facts

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 by Travis Richardson

With a new baby, I find that I’m in the kitchen by myself a little more than I have been before. While I’ve always helped with household chores, now I’m doing much more of this solo while my wife nurses the baby who has voracious appetite. Often I’m cooking, cleaning or putting away dishes in the kitchen. In that time I turn on the little TV/VCR combo I’ve had for over fifteen years while I do my assigned tasks.

At first I watched, if I could find it, informative news. Unfortunately, unless you hit the right time when all the day’s events are summarized, most news outlets seem to discuss ad nauseam one or two sensational stories with “experts” voicing their opinions. It gets monotonous in a hurry. I started watching baseball games or sports highlights next. Baseball has been good because the two broadcasts that we get, Dodgers and Angels, are teams that I don’t follow. That way I can casually watch while I work for a couple of innings and not get sucked into it. However, not long ago stumbled across a program that has sucked me in, Forensic Files on Headline News.  Of course the Headline News Network has become a misnomer because they rarely carry headline news, just like MTV almost never plays videos anymore.

In tight 30-minute episodes (probably 24 minutes with commercials), a violent crime is committed, investigators follow clues, usually baffled at first, and then some breakthrough happens, often with forensic evidence used to support a conviction. Writing crime fiction, I find this fascinating. Less about the science involved that ultimately nails the perpetrator, but more about the motivations of the (most often) killer, the jagged path of the investigation and how the criminal reacted when caught. One trend that I notice on this program is that a disproportionate number of victims are female (and usually white on top of that). If you were to watch the program, it could lead one to believe that women are the most prevalent murder victims in America, stalked and hunted relentlessly. Yet, according to FBI statistics, 77.4% for murder victims in 2010 were male. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded/expandhomicidemain

The Los Angeles Times has a fascinating (and sad and macabre) blog called The Homicide Report which details, as best as reporters can find, homicides that have happened within LA County going back to the year 2000. http://homicide.latimes.com It has detailed information with a map of the neighborhoods with demographic breakdowns by gender, race, weapons, ages, and other data. Of the 333 homicides this year, only 45 have been female. So 86.5% of murder victims have been male.

So why do the majority of the Forensic Files cases have female victims? From the producers’ standpoint, I can see how they would select true crime stories that have more sympathetic victims (like a single mother) so they can provoke a stronger feeling of outrage than one might have for a 20-year-old armed gangbanger who encroached on another gang’s territory. I feel that there are probably more female victims in procedural crime fiction on TV and in literature.

Sometimes in the show, perpetrators are known to the victim, but random acts of violence also seem to be a reoccurring theme. I think this helps in weaving mystery into the narrative, especially as family members and acquaintances are eliminated as suspects. In reality more murders (53% in 2010) were committed by “an acquaintance, neighbor, friend, boyfriend, etc” vs. unknown relationship (44% in 2010*). *I don’t know about the missing 3%, you need to ask the FBI.

One of the things that the random violence tends to do is make us not trust our fellow man. Local news stations and shows like Forensic Files often sensationalize the brutal acts. I have a co-worker who will often tell me about some horrible event in Los Angeles or in the US. When she finishes telling me about it, she often ends her summary with a line like “just goes to show we’re just not safe anywhere anymore.” If I have the energy, I try to rebuttal that we are incredibly safe. And I really believe that.

As I mentioned above, 333 people have been murdered in Los Angeles County this year. If you lived in a county with 2000 people, that would be a terrifyingly enormous figure and I would advise moving ASAP — don’t worry about packing. But Los Angeles County has 10+ million people living in it. Calculating the 333 murders that happened between January 1 and August 1, 2015, a citizen’s chance of being murdered on those dates is .0033% —  a three thousandths of a percent or approximately 1 in 30,000. To put this in perspective you’re chance of getting struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 3,000.

And there is another sad truth that is obvious in the LA Times homicide blog. A person’s zip code determines the amount of murder/violence they will encounter (remember male on male violence) as some places are high and others null. It’s mostly economics and the prevalence of gang violence mostly, along with some other factors.

It’s also worth noting that despite what all the crime shows, media reports and politicians are shouting, crime nationwide has been dropping for decades. Here is a graph from FBI with showing a 12.3% nationwide drop in violent crime between 2009 and 2013.

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Violent crime is dropping

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/violent-crime/violent-crime-topic-page/violentcrimemain_final

And this drop is happening with an almost 10 million increase in our population. (2009: 306.8M, 2013: 316.5M)  So in 2013 1,163,146 violent acts were committed in the US with a population 316.5M, giving us a .367% chance of being a victim of a violent crime (about a 1/3 of 1%). The 2013 murder rate was 14,196 which put everybody’s risk at .004485%. Los Angeles had 620 murders in 2013 so it was at .0062%, a wee bit more dangerous than the US in total.

Nobody is certain of the exact reasons for the decrease, but many theories have been posited from mass incarceration to better community policing to legalized abortion to gentrification to the absence of lead in paint and gasoline. I imagine it is not one thing, but several combinations different things that have helped to lower the national crime rate.

Watching TV programs and reading headlines, we might never know things have been improving. That’s not to say we should leave our doors unlocked and toss all precautions into the wind. Predators live among us, and like animals in the wild, they look for opportunities to strike when they perceive their prey is vulnerable. Yet, we shouldn’t live in constant fear. When watching the news or the Forensic Files or even reading, it’s good to keep in mind that for the most part, many of those stories are isolated events and statistically it should not happen to most of us.

Is there anything you’ve seen, heard or read something that evoked a reaction only to research it later and find out that certain things were overstated, false or misleading?

 

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Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity short story award in 2014 and 2015 as well as the Anthony short story award in 2014. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at http://www.chekhovshorts.com, and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, concerns a disgraced baseball player who will do anything to keep his tainted home run record.  www.tsrichardson.com 

 

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34 Responses to Sensationalism vs. Facts

  1. Neva Bodin says:

    Those statistics are reassuring especially since our local paper now devotes about two pages to murder, child abuse, spouse abuse, robbery etc. every day in a town of about 60,000. My main goal is to read the funnies each morning and skip the rest. I would bet you are right about the choice of female murders being more emotional and sensational so covered more often in the real murder stories. However, I am a fan of Colombo and Murder She Wrote, and they seem to cover about equal I think. Sounds like you are a successful crime writer and can get a lot of fodder for your ideas. I find crime interesting as I am always interested in figuring out why the person did it more than “who” did it. My psych training I guess. Interesting blog with good statistics.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thank you Neva,

      Unfortunately most news outlets have the mentality that “if it bleeds, it leads.” I guess the Chamber of Commerce and other institutions put out positive messages.

      Like

  2. Mike Staton says:

    TV news in Las Vegas is nothing but murders and fatal traffic accidents. Roommate’s father is afraid of an home intrusion, since we keep seeing cases of people breaking into houses and shooting the homeowners. It’s impossible to leave the door unlocked by accident; he’s checking it within two minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Travis says:

      They happen, but they are statistically very rare. The rock band Eels have a line the song “PS You Rock My World” that goes “…a careful man tries to dodge the bullets, while a happy man takes a walk.” The idea is getting out, enjoying life and not worrying about things. Another line from their song “Friendly Ghost” goes “if you scared of dying you better not be scared to live.” You might pass that along.

      Like

  3. Wranglers says:

    We recently started getting Investigation Discovery, a channel dedicated to the very things you talk about. As a fellow writer of crime fiction, I was interested in it when the cable company announced it was being added to our lineup. There are some good, factual shows, like the one that is narrated by a real retired homicide detective in which he discusses some of the cases he worked. But a lot of the stuff is reruns of old episodes of network shows that recount cases that were tabloid news and were, therefore, almost all about the rape and/or murder of a pretty young woman. Even the real woman isn’t sympathetic enough, though, and they hire a model to play her in the reenactments.

    Like

    • Joe Stephens says:

      This comment was from me! I forgot to log in as myself after posting on here a couple days ago. Sorry!

      Like

      • Travis says:

        A lot of reruns on Forensic Files as well. Since I don’t always see an entire episode because I need to help out with the baby, I’ve been able to catch segments again. A funny thing was last night after I wrote this the two episodes that I saw had female killers, but then it went back to female victims (and rerun at that.)

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wranglers says:

      Joe, we always watched the ID channel. The bad thing is my memory for show facts that I night use is zhilch. LoL Cher’ley

      Like

  4. I definitely have more sympathy for stay at home mothers and other vulnerable victims, but if you get involved in gang or other illegal activity, you’ve made your bed, and you need to lie in it.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Yes, live by the sword, die by the sword. All of the episodes end with the conviction of the murder and I wonder if the investigators worked much harder on the highlighted cases because of the outrage of an innocent victim versus a gunned down career criminal.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting post, Travis. In all my communications/film/TV courses I took over the years in college, one theme was that the news and media skews things to fit a certain agenda. I have always watched the news with a grain of salt and it also depends on what news you watch too, of course. Fox News tends to do the more sensational stories. I always tune into the news while I’m in bed and I prefer KTLA but I know they have their own agenda as well. I agree, the majority of news is depressing, scary, and disheartening. Growing up in SoCal, I just accepted this and never once thought of myself as surrounded by violence when according to the news reports, I should fear for my life and live in a cave.

    However, with that being said, it’s interesting that here in my South Bay bubble, violence has definitely escalated over the past few years. Normally quiet upper class Manhattan Beach was rocked with violence late last year when a couple came home to intruders in their home. They were hog-tied, beaten, and the burglars broke into their safe and threatened to kill their dog. This is totally unheard of for Manhattan Beach. And just recently a Redondo Beach lawyer was shot and killed by her boyfriend who claims self-defense. These are incidents that are few and far between but it’s so out of the norm for our little beach community that it becomes big front page news on our local papers. I’ve never felt unsafe living in greater L.A. and especially the beach communities, but for the first time ever, that’s all changing because it’s in my own backyard. I think that’s what makes the difference. How close to home it actually is.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thanks Sarah. Yeah, one or two incidents in a community can shake up the sense of security for a while even though there are tens of thousands of unmolested citizens. That being said, bad elements will come into a community from time to time and do awful things.

      Like

  6. Nancy Jardine says:

    Sadly, I have to say Travis that I sometimes force myself to watch the news coverage- just to see if there will be anything positive in the bulletins because a lot of it is about violent crime. I can see how useful the programmes you mention might be to a crime author but I’m very glad to see you don;t take anything at face value and have checked the statistics.

    Like

  7. Travis,
    Thank you for these insights. And you thought having a baby was going to be all about changing diapers.
    – Stephen

    Like

  8. Wranglers says:

    I saw violence rise drastically in the small communities for several years. I have two guns and a dog. Not really that I was so much afraid, but when my husband went out on the road without me, he insisted. The news just reported that some soldiers at Camp Shelby, MS, were close to the road and someone shot at them. So terrible. I think the cases are not so much about the gang wars and such on Forensic Files and such. Not much about them to make a story. Thanks for all your research. Happy Fathering, and I’m proud of you for helping out so much more. Your baby is so cute. Cher’ley

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thank you Cher’ley. Meth use has ravaged rural parts of America. Mostly burglaries, fires, and incident public acts (I believe), but violence is a a part of it too.

      Like

  9. Andrew Jetarski says:

    Really appreciate this post, Travis. Once upon a time I worked in TV news – but neither my wife or I have bothered to waste any time on it for the past 12 years. (She was the victim of a violent crime many years ago; I can count myself lucky never to have been seriously threatened.) Our personal life experience is a far more reliable reminder than anything the media presents.

    Like

  10. Anne Murray had a song many years ago called “A Little Good News,” and one of the main lines was “We sure could use a little good news today” — I wholeheartedly agree! I’ve cut WAY BACK on watching, listening to, and reading news because of that sensationalism and because of all the “bad” they put out there — so many people and organizations are doing GREAT things, yet we hear very little about those. I suppose that’s one reason I try to write encouraging, uplifting works because our society is SO saturated with the dark and negative. Thank you for posting about violent crime actually going down — that is reassuring — the media is not.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      It’s great that so many people are tired of all the negative event on the news. I wish the news media executives would listen to this and mention a lot of the good things happening.

      Like

  11. Wendy says:

    One additional factor in a drop in homicides is that many kinds of assaults, including shootings, have become more survivable over time due to advances in technology and medicine, especially trauma medicine.

    Like

  12. Doris says:

    Travis, you nailed it. Having worked in Juvenile detention and with juvenile offenders for twenty years, I know first hand things are usually blown out of proportion. I don’t watch the news on a regular basis, it rarely is news. But if a subject or event catches my attention, I will research to find all the facts I can.

    People and their motives are what fascinate me. The young person who killed his best friend and girlfriend, the gang member who shot an unknown for initiation, those people catch my interest. Why? That is the questions that gets me going.

    Enjoyed the post. Love people who take the whole into the picture. Doris

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thank you Doris,

      Working in juvenile detention must be both interesting and heartbreaking. I read The Way Home by George Pelecanos a few years back and it was riveting portrayal of the juvenile system in DC.

      Like

  13. jakazimer says:

    Excellent, Travis. What we ‘see’ on television creates our own realities. We see murder and violence and suddenly the world is an extremely dangerous place. It’s what keeps certain parties in power. While getting my forensic psychology degree, I noticed my worldview changing depending on the case I was working. I stopped walking my dog at this one lake because that’s how I suspected one killer had picked his victim. It’s amazing how strong our fear can be. Thanks for a great post with truths we all need to know.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thank you Julie,

      I think we sometimes have a “Jaws syndrome” where everybody was scared to go out to the beach the summer Spielberg’s movie came out.

      Like

  14. Craig Faustus Buck says:

    Great post, Travis. The takeaway, obviously, is to be afraid… be very afraid… of lightning.

    I do find it endlessly irritating that you can’t find any TV news during the day anymore. Just mindless punditry on the story of the day. Over and over and over and over. Doesn’t anyone at CNN watch this stuff and realize how numbingly boring it is?

    Like

  15. Travis says:

    Yes! You got the point Craig, lightning doesn’t discriminate. It’ll strike anybody. And I agree about the repetition of the news cycle. I get pundit’s point in the first 30 seconds, yet it goes on and on and on…

    Like

  16. 1 in 3000 chance of getting struck by lightning! I had no idea the odds were so high. I’m not afraid of being murdered in my sleep but now I have to worry about electrifying on a rainy afternoon. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

    Like

  17. S. J. Brown says:

    Oddly enough we found that crime on one side of the street can be different from what goes on one the other side of the street. In our former neighborhood there was an alley that ran behind the houses across the street from us. ( We didn’t have an alley). They had more break ins and thefts than people on our side of the street. The alley provided a better access and escape route for the thieves.

    I so agree with you that the media tends to fixate on a story and sensationalize it at the cost of other worthy stories. I think in todays world a little precaution goes a long way. Things that past generations didn’t bother about like locking your doors, women not traveling alone at night and keeping a close eye on your children have just because part of life.

    Like

  18. Very interesting post Travis. My husband watches Forensic Files relentlessly. If it’s on he’s watching it. I had never thought about the program in the way that you have written here, but I really enjoyed the statistics and facts you present. Good Job!

    Like

  19. sstamm625 says:

    Great post, Travis. You’re right. Given what we hear on the news, we wouldn’t know crime is decreasing. Thanks for all the facts you provided.

    Like

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