Our cover story this month on crime in Florida is important both because it may tell you something you didn’t know and also because it’s a window into a phenomenon that’s playing out across a range of issues: The disconnect between data — empirical facts — and perceptions.
Continuing a 50-year trend, crime rates — the number of crimes per 100,000 population — fell statewide by more than 14% last year, with rates falling in all the state’s urban counties. In Broward and Orange counties, by more than 18%; in Miami-Dade, by nearly 20%; in Pinellas, by around 15%. The total number of “index” crimes in Florida — including rape, robbery, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — reached its lowest level since 1973, when Florida’s population was a third its present size.
The statistical exceptions — increases in murder and aggravated assault — are worrisome and appear to be due to the increased pandemic-related stress in poor communities that already suffer from disproportionate rates of violence. There’s no evidence of homicides increasing in communities where they were previously rare.
Bottom line, as per our story — you’re safer from crime in Florida than you’ve ever been.
Ask your spouse or neighbors whether they think crime is increasing or decreasing, however, and you’ll likely hear a different story.
Despite the downward trends in crime, in 20 of 24 surveys since 1993 at least 60% of American adults thought crime had increased nationally, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of those surveyed thought crime had increased in their area. Additional research indicates that Americans also tend to overestimate their own chances of becoming a victim of crime. “The country has gotten much, much safer, but somehow Americans don’t seem to feel that on a kneejerk, emotional level,” wrote the authors of an article on the Five Thirty Eight website.
The reasons for this, according to Pew and other datacrunchers, have to do with a range of factors that produce anxiety rather than people being misinformed about the actual crime data. Terrorism and mass shootings, for example, produce statistically few casualties, but the random nature of the crimes generates a huge amount of anxiety that may be reflected in perceptions about crime.
Likewise, perceptions of social disorder — the presence of trash in the streets, loud music, abandoned vehicles — also appear to translate into perceptions that there’s more crime than there actually is.
Another factor is the number of unreported crimes: Sexual assault, for example, is underreported, as are thefts that victims think are trivial or feel responsible for by, for example, failing to lock their cars.
The worst offenders in fearmongering, however, may well be the media. From my earliest days as a newspaper reporter, I’ve been troubled by the random, episodic nature of most crime coverage. Very little gets reported aside from murder — the rarest of crimes — and in all but a very few murder cases a reader never learns the fate of someone who’s arrested.
Television newsrooms are the worst offenders, but newspapers, what’s left of them, aren’t much better. No effort goes into providing context along with accounts of random crimes. So, for example, while some egregious crime may get a headline in the local section, readers will likely never learn whether the number of those crimes has been rising, falling or constant or in which neighborhoods there are more or fewer of those crimes.
This stuff matters. Newspapers and television, surveys show, “disproportionately portray black people as perpetrators of crime and white people as victims,” according to FiveThirtyEight. Indeed, a Martian who read my local newspaper would conclude that the area’s African-American population was split between saintly 60- to 80-year-old veterans of the civil rights movement (typically lionized on front-page features) and young thugs whose mugshots populate the inside pages of the local section. Most black people don’t fit into either of those categories.
Amid a steady drumbeat of bad news, with no context to leaven the shrieking anecdotes, it’s no wonder people think things are getting worse all the time: Panic is what the media now sell. And it’s what politicians exploit: Eager to stoke fears, they blow up the random anecdotes of crime so they can lie to voters that they’ll “do something” about crime or that the other candidate doesn’t care.
More examples of disconnects between reality and perception — or choosing to believe what you want in the face of data? QAnon. Election fraud. The inclination among journalists to link any significant weather event to climate change. Beliefs about police violence — those who identify as liberal consistently overestimate numbers involving police shootings, including how many unarmed black men are killed each year. Perceptions about COVID-19 — we overestimate hospitalization rates, infection fatality rates and have no idea how many asymptomatic cases there are or have been. Surveys in 2020, for example, indicated that a third of Americans believed that 50% of those infected ended up in the hospital (correct figure is between 1% and 5%). The infection fatality rate for people under 70 who get the coronavirus is half of 1%.
Why do all these disconnects matter? Writing in online publication Tablet, political science professor Wilfred Reilly of Kentucky State University says, “In reality, virtually all metrics measuring Western and global life expectancy, IQ, governmental corruption, poverty, racism, women’s rights and so forth have been improving for decades — but no one seems to know it. The more our baseline assumptions are based on bullshit, the less capable we are of addressing real-world problems in real time.”
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's October issue.
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