I’m not much of a Michael Moore fan, but I thought his movie Bowling for Columbine had some interesting and thought provoking segments in it. Yes, a lot of it was just pointless grandstanding, like taking the ammunition back to K-mart and his interview with Charlton Heston. But I thought the movie hit on something very important when discussing how the media’s coverage of violent crime had gone up some 500% (I forget the exact figure) while actual violent crime had gone down significantly over the last two decades. With that in mind, take a look at this USA Today article about sex crimes against children. Every major case of this sort, from Polly Klass to Jessica Lunsford gets saturation-level media coverage, to the point where we are absolutely bombarded with it on every single TV station, every talk radio show, every newspaper. But that doesn’t square with the reality:
Government figures show the rate of sexual assaults against adolescents ages 12 to 17 plunged 79% from 1993 through 2003, and the number of substantiated sex-abuse cases involving kids of all ages fell 39% in the same time period. Finkelhor, who has analyzed the data, sees multiple reasons for the decline: Greater incarceration of offenders, more therapy and use of psychiatric drugs, economic improvement in the 1990s and heightened public concern.
In fact, crime is down across the board in the United States and has been falling steadily since the late 80s. But there’s no way one would know that by watching the media, and the media is the primary source of information for the average person. This saturation coverage cannot help but have an enormous impact on our cultural psyche. It makes us fear each other more, and fear can have an enormous effect on how we view ourselves and others. Fear hardens social boundaries and makes us more likely to view Them as a threat.
I was also very shocked to find out from this article that sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate among all serious crimes and that treatment actually is effective in this regard:
Government data show most sex offenders are male, and the majority of victims are female. The offenders are less likely to be rearrested after prison for any type of crime than other former inmates, although those who are rearrested are more likely to be charged with another sex crime, according to a 2003 study by the Department of Justice.
Treatment helps. Group therapy dropped the recidivism rate from 17% to 10%, according to a 2002 study that Hanson co-wrote. He studied 9,454 sex offenders in 43 states.
A similar 1999 study found that those participating in relapse-prevention programs had a rearrest rate of 7.2% after five years, compared with 17.6% for those who weren’t treated. The study, sponsored by the Justice Department, looked at 11,000 offenders.
Doctors typically use cognitive therapy that teaches offenders to avoid risky behavior, such as living or working near children. They sometimes prescribe antidepressants or other drugs.
“You can’t cure it anymore than you can cure alcoholism, but you can successfully treat it,” says Fred Berlin, founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University.
I’d like to see more detailed data on all of that, of course. One of the problems we have in dealing with the issue is that the term “sex offender” covers such a wide range of things. There’s an enormous difference between, say, an 18 year old guy with a 16 year old girlfriend who gets charged with statutory rape and a 38 year old guy having sex with a 12 year old. The second one is a major threat to society, the first is not. So combining the two together under the term “sex offender” is absurd.
I don’t propose a solution to this problem of media saturation. In fact, I don’t know if one is possible. Obviously we can’t restrict what the media covers, nor can we expect the media to stop doing what gets them ratings. The answer can only lie within an educated populace that is able to distinguish between the intensity of what they see in the media and what is actually going on. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have such a populace. I doubt any nation has ever had such a populace.