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Did News Media Exaggerate The Role Of Crime in Midterm Elections?

The news media assumed that Republican demagoguery about crime would significantly affect voters in this week's midterm elections, but crime turned out to be "mostly a non-issue" in races nationwide, says journalist Radley Balko.

One reason for the media overkill was the outsized role of events in New York City in coverage that can have an influence around the U.S., Balko believes.

The New York Post and Fox News, for example, ran frequent stories on crime in New York City's subway system. The New York Times published a front-page story last Saturday headlined "High-Profile Subway Crimes Overshadow Riders' Low Risk."

Crime policy often was cited by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) in his campaign for governor against incumbent Kathy Hochul, who ended up winning decisively with about 53 percent of the vote.

Balko, who runs a newsletter and website called The Watch, and Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine discussed media issues Thursday on a webinar sponsored by the Law and Justice Journalism Project.

Another example of media concentration on crime was a lead story in the New York Times last Friday with the headline, "Fears Over Crime Weigh on Voters, Benefiting G.O.P"

The story reported that, "Though polls show that voters’ biggest concerns are about the economy and inflation, many Americans — especially more conservative voters ... but also moderates and liberals —say they are gripped by worries over crime and disorder."

It was illustrated by a photo of a billboard opposing Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman proclaiming that "FETTERMAN = POVERTY AND CRIME."

Despite conservative attacks on Fetterman's record on criminal justice, he defeated Dr. Mehmet Oz in Tuesday's election for a U.S. Senate seat.

The concern among many voters about crime did have an impact in some races in suburban areas.

In New York state, Rep. Sean Maloney of Newburgh, north of New York City, lost his campaign for re-election.

Balko said in his newsletter that "Republican challenger Mike Lawler hit Maloney hard on the issue of cash bail, which of course is odd because bail is a state issue over which Congress has little control ... But Lawler pushed the silly idea that Congress should threaten to withhold federal funding unless New York repeals its bail reform laws."

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Republican gains shows that Democrats can’t be “crime deniers.” He said on a post-midterms radio show, "There wasn’t a red wave, but there was a crime wave.”

News media around the U.S. generally were more accurate in reporting on crime than were some national outlets, which makes sense because "crime is a very local issue," Balko said.

This came up, for example, in the extensive reporting since the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the issue of "defunding" police departments.

Balko and Bazelon agreed that many in the national media were guilty of oversimplifying the topic, sometimes suggesting that the term meant eliminating police departments.

Local reporters did a better job of reporting on "defunding" because they "know where to look" in municipal budgets, Balko said.

In his newsletter, Balko says, "the police haven't been de-funded. A handful of cities made marginal cuts to police budgets ... In a few places, most notably St. Paul and Portland, somewhat significant cuts to police budgets did occur contemporaneously with record increases in homicides ... It would be foolish to suggest a large, sudden, highly-publicized reduction in police officers on the street wouldn’t have at least some effect on crime."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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