Ever noticed how, if you rely on the tabloid media, you’re always being told that crime is getting worse? That it’s just one slow, devastating slide into anarchy and chaos, it never gets any better – no matter how many “tough on crime” policies our politicians implement (thereby apparently proving that we need to get tougher until it eventually works)… That there’s never any improvement, no matter what we try.

When crime figures are released that actually show crime rates dropping, we don’t see the reverse of the headlines we get when they increase. Quite the contrary – we get attacks on the figures themselves. How dare they contradict our narrative! We’ve told you [our version of] what’s going on, and we’ll only accept the figures that back us up. Anything else must be a lie.

And their readers lap it up uncritically.

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I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, when you’re young you don’t read this sort of media. You are largely unaware of the sort of terrifying tales of disaster in your environment because you’re not interested in them. Then, as you get older and work full time and your source for external information about the world is the tabloids and commercial TV, all of a sudden all you’re hearing about is the most terrible incidents that occur. You’ve gone from hearing nothing about them to hearing only about them – naturally you feel that the world is getting more dangerous and scary.

Which photograph makes the Herald Sun? The punch up outside a nightclub, or the ordinary non-violent Saturday night of pretty much everyone else? Of course the bad gets disproportionate coverage.

And of course as we age – as our joints lose their flexibility, as we experience real pain, as we see those around us experience accidents and injury, we lose our youthful fearlessness. We have kids, and as we loosen the apron strings and they are exposed to the rest of the world, well, naturally we can’t help but fear the worst happening to them. And let those dark fears dig deep into our subconsciousnesses.

So is it any wonder that people tend to feel that the world is getting more dangerous – and why they consume this sort of media uncritically?

That’s sad, and a tendency we should all be alert to – but it also does real damage. It’s the basis for Laura Norder campaigns which tend to make problems worse – campaigns to lock more minor criminals up, thereby turning them into more major criminals (and wasting huge sums of taxpayer’s money); campaigns to reduce funding on rehabilitation programs, campaigns to help groups most likely through various circumstances to turn to crime – and the less these campaigns work, the worse the problem gets, the more their proponents say we need to adopt their solutions that don’t work.

Just remember: your parents thought the world was descending into anarchy when you were a teenager. So did theirs thirty years earlier. And those before them. Try to remember how out of touch you knew they were then.

And remember that the tabloids are selling you something. You don’t have to buy it.

UPDATE: Of course, the phenomenon is not unique to Australia – for example, here in Oregon. Martin McKee, writing in the British Medical Journal, gives some explanation as to why.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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