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The Questionable Media Narrative on 'Rising Violent Crime'

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Murders and murder rates since 1960
Graphic: Datalytics

Hardly a day went by in 2021 without a story in a major news media outlet mentioning a supposed crime trend in the United States.

On New Year's Day, the Washington Post referred in a front-page story on local homicides to a "troubling rise in violent crime across the country."

Earlier, NPR ran this story on NPR, headlined, "Rising Violent Crime is Likely to Present a Political Challenge For Democrats in 2022."

CNN ran a piece last week headlined "America's crime wave tests both parties," which prominently mentioned "the rise in violent crime across the United States."

Two problems with these and thousands of other stories like them is that they might not be accurate and that they may unduly frighten many Americans, no matter what political party they support.

It is true that the nation's homicide total rose sharply in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, driven by increases in several big cities. As 2022 begins, is it fair to apply that conclusion to all crime categories or even to violent crime?

Homicides are the most serious crime type but their numbers are small compared with crime overall. More than 21,000 homicides were reported to the FBI in 2020. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which estimates crime based on interviews with a representative sample of the nation, said the national total of number of violent crimes simple assault, fell from 2 million in 2019 to 1.6 million in 2020.

With homicides a tiny fraction of the national total, trends in killings may be going in the opposite direction from violent crime in general.

The confusion is likely to continue this weekend as many media outlets report on 2021 crime data in their regions and try to compare the local numbers with the nation as a whole.

One of the most recent estimates of national crime rates was published last month by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice.

Based on reports from 27 cities that are usually representative of the nation, the report said that during the first three quarters of 2021, homicide rates declined from their recent peak in the summer of 2020. The number of homicides rose by four percent compared with the first three quarters of 2020.

New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher estimates that when the year's totals are in, the nation's homicide toll will have risen between 3 and 6 percent from last year.

Aggravated and gun assault rates were also higher in the first three quarters of 2021 than in the same period of 2020. Aggravated assaults increased by 3 percent while gun assaults rose by four-tenths of 1 percent.

The council deliberately did not compare rates of "violent crime" because the components are very different, says criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis, lead author of the report.

For example, robberies are among the crimes most feared by Americans — the crime victimization survey estimated more than 437,000 of them in 2020 — and that important category dropped 6 percent in the first three quarters of 2021 compared with the previous year.

Other types of violent crime include rapes, intimate partner violence and arson, whose trends also differ, especially during the pandemic.

The U.S. still has a high street crime rate by world standards and any increase in homicides, even a small one, is disturbing, but the crime levels of the twenty-first century are much below those reported in the 1990s.

Both Rosenfeld and criminologist James Fox of Northeastern University, who also follows crime trends closely, agreed that the news media's constant reporting of a "crime wave" that does not appear to exist unduly alarms the average citizen.

Fox noted that the media reports probably played a part in a sharp increase in gun sales over the last two years.

Much media reporting on gun violence data, including this web site, relies heavily on the Gun Violence Archive, which has counted the alarming figures of more than 44,000 gun violence deaths this year (more than half of them suicides), and 28 mass murders (in which four or more people died).

Fox says that mass murders not surprisingly get disproportionate media coverage but are "rare events."

Because many changes in the crime rate are linked to the prevalence of the pandemic, and no one knows how that will change in 2022, it's impossible to make any firm predictions on what will happen to crime totals in the new year.

Based on the fragmentary evidence of trends during the pandemic, news media declarations of a crime wave may prove to be way off base.


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