Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Media Saturation and Fear of Crime

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.


  1. #1 Roadtripper
    August 26, 2005

    Media saturation may be annoying, but I believe the media may have actually played a role in the reduction of violent crimes. There have been a few high-profile cases which raised public awareness to a degree that new laws were passed to help solve or prevent crimes. Case in point: the “amber alert” system. In my area, we’ve had several kidnapping victims recovered with this system, and it exists mainly due to media coverage of a single child abduction case.

  2. #2 jcw
    August 26, 2005


    “Fear hardens social boundaries and makes us more likely to view Them as a threat.” Could you please provide an example or hypothetical of what you mean by this? Thank-you.

  3. #3 Raging Bee
    August 26, 2005

    Wait a minute, the rate of sexual assaults went DOWN during the sexually lascivious, licentious and perverse Clinton years? And you have data to back that up? Expect a fatwa from Pat Robertson!

  4. #4 Mark Paris
    August 26, 2005

    I am also surprised to hear that sex offenders have lower recidivism rates than those who commit other serious crimes. I wonder particularly about pedophiles. It has been generally assumed that they will continue to abuse children after release from prison. That is one of the main reasons sex offenders are treated differently from other criminals after release (registration, public postings of names and photographs).

  5. #5 John
    August 26, 2005

    And the rate of violent crime went down even as violent video games have proliferated.

  6. #6 Raging Bee
    August 26, 2005

    Mark Paris: I read somewhere (long ago) that many of those who molest kids do so only in times of life-disrupting crisis, such as divorce, death of the wife, or, in one famous case, defection from the USSR to the US (a KGB guy named Shevchenko, for whom the CIA allegedly bought a 13-year-old prostitute). These “regressive child-molesters” for the most part respond to counseling/treatment, get their lives back on track, and don’t repeat their offenses. This could explain the low recidivism rates.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    August 26, 2005

    jcw wrote:

    “Fear hardens social boundaries and makes us more likely to view Them as a threat.” Could you please provide an example or hypothetical of what you mean by this? Thank-you.

    To me, this seems entirely self-evident. A people who are afraid are a people easily manipulated into preferring a fortress society over an open one. A people who are afraid move into gated communities and live behind locked doors. A people who are afraid seek a government who will keep them safe at all costs. That’s why every war in history has been sold as a response to a threat, no matter how absurd the threat may be. Hitler even sold his invasion of Poland to the German people as a response to an imminent threat. Historically, racism has almost always been sold by virtue of an imagined threat to be feared, as in “the negroes are coming to rape our white women” or “the Jews control everything and are to blame for your plight”. I don’t think there is a more influential and powerful motivation than response to fear.

  8. #8 Tracy P. Hamilton
    August 26, 2005

    Of course, media (9/11) coverage of the crimes you (9/11) describe are not (9/11) the only thing that
    (9/11) we get bombarded (9/11) with constantly.
    And not only by the (9/11) media, but our (9/11)
    political leaders mention it (9/11) whenever uncomfortable questions arise.

  9. #9 raj
    August 26, 2005

    Ed Brayton at August 26, 2005 02:50 PM

    Hitler even sold his invasion of Poland to the German people as a response to an imminent threat.

    Not exactly. It was more sinister than that. According to Shirer’s Rise & Fall of the 3d Reich, Hitler staged an invasion (by Germans posing as Poles) from the Polish border. It wasn’t as though he was selling it as an “imminent threat” He was selling it as an “actual threat.” But it was a fraud.

    Hermann Goering was right on mark:

    “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

    — Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

    From the Urban Legend Reference Pages


    Sounds quaintly familiar to what GWBush is pushing.

  10. #10 raj
    August 26, 2005

    I will expand on the cited Goering quotation. He was much more insightful than had been mentioned:

    We (the author of the cited book, and Goering) got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

    “Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

    “There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

    “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

    The entire page is worth reading. And it brings forward chilling recollections of the politicians of my war–Vietnam–and the current war in Iraq.

  11. #11 jcw
    August 26, 2005


    Thanks for the explanation. In the article it points out that “heightened public concern” (rational fear?) has had a hand in the decline of crime in the US. I agree with you that irrational fear can have detrimental effects on society and is a very powerful motivator.

  12. #12 raj
    August 28, 2005

    I didn’t watch Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, but we did watch his Fahrenheit 911. From what I have read, Moore’s primary theme, from his first “mockumentary” Roger & Me, has been what used to be called “class warfare.” In F911, it was clear that his theme was that the political class was willing to send the military, who had mostly been recruited from the lower middle class, off to fight in Iraq, but they were unwilling to send their own children over there. That was in stark contrast to, for example WWII, but it was becoming quite evident in, for example, the Korean War, and was quite clear in Vietnam.

    On the subject of the post, media saturation, I’m sure that you have heard the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” That’s all that you are seeing on the nightly “news.” Individual incidents. You really need to understand. The media in the US exists to sell advertising time. And to create a profit. Profit is revenue minus cost. They have figured out that they can increase their profit by minimizing their cost. And that’s where the “if it bleeds….” comes in. It doesn’t take a lot of money to cover local crime, fires, etc. even though they don’t have much impact on the larger community. All they need to do is to listen to the police bands over the radio and rush a “reporter” over to the scene to “report” on the incident. Apparently, enough people are willing to watch such silliness that the media outlets can persuade their advertisers to pay them their target revenue for the advertising time.

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