Sunday, July 4, 2010

(Be)heading West, or Mass (media) Murder...

It was another beautiful, sunny morning in the mountains. Oh, sure, I was surrounded by death, but that didn’t seem bother me, or anyone else, for that matter. In Valemount, the mountain pine beetle had swept through the lodgepole stands and made devastatingly quick work of the trees, leaving little but riddled boles, reddening needles, and little piles of frass all around. In addition to the insect, the area was infested, almost stem for stem, with dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant that weakened or killed almost all of the trees that survived the onslaught of coleopterans. I stared out the window of the hotel restaurant into the increasingly thinning stands as I nibbled on my toast, appreciating the colourful beauty of the quasi-natural destruction, oblivious to the much more interesting death afoot.

Turning my attention back inside, my eyes were seized by a television, one of many waiting to draw my focus from the real world around me. Despite the fact that I was in British Columbia, the dial was tuned to CNN, a fact of some significance, but little surprise when over a third of broadcasts come from south of the border. What was interesting, however, was the origin, and the content of the news that was being reported. The images on the screen showed road flares, and the flashing lights of RCMP cars somewhere along the #1 in Manitoba. Overdubbed was the voice of a representative of Greyhound Transportation in Dallas, Texas, commenting on the stabbing, beheading, and cannibalization of Tim McLean by Vince Weiguang Li near Portage la Prairie. Something terrible had occurred.

And I will admit that I too was taken in by the story. But it wasn’t a visceral kind of response. I wasn’t disgusted by the crime, or afraid that it might happen to me. I was fascinated. We hear about murders all the time, but this was something different. This was a true statistical anomaly. The perpetrator and victim were unknown to one another, drugs were not involved, there were no financial motivators, and it was not a serial occurrence. This was beyond a one in a million event. This was interesting. I stepped closer to get a better listen.

As I stood in front of the television, a server joined me in staring at the screen. “The world’s going to hell in a handbasket…” she said.

I turn to her. “Well, the murder rate is the lowest it’s been since the seventies…”

“Well I don’t believe it,” she replied, then she turned away, and went back to her duties.

This experience made me smirk. I could only smirk. It was the one thing I could do ease the thought that there were many just like her. People who are afraid, for all the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, such myopia is not isolated. Stephen Harper, just a few months before, made a speech extolling the efforts and accomplishment of his government, not the least of which was the Conservative’s ‘get tough on crime’ direction.

“Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics.” He spoke.

“Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from the Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”’

"But Canadians can see behind the curtain. They know there’s a problem.”1

You said it, Steve.

Unfortunately, as much as it may be in the interests of Harper’s government to convince people that crime is a problem, people’s gut feelings are about as accurate at determining crime levels as they are at, say, predicting the weather: not very.

The fact of the matter is that homicides in Canada have been mostly declining since the peak of nearly 3 per 100 000 in 19762 (curiously enough, also the year the death penalty was abolished). Other violent crime and property crime continued to climb in Canada until 1991, at which point they began to decline, as they have done largely continuously since then. In the United States, despite overall crime rates of all kinds being higher, the upward and downward trends were similar (despite homicide declines not being quite as pronounced)3,4.

Now, this could easily become an entry about the whether or not Harper’s proposed longer sentences would reduce crime, but that is not the goal. It will suffice to say that there very little evidence that longer sentences reduce crime, and that which does carries significant caveats. However, despite the lack of conclusive evidence and Canadians’ oft-perceived moral superiority over the American justice system, the majority are in favour of similar mandatory minimum sentences, longer incarcerations, and capital punishment.5 What may not be considered, though, is that longer sentences will cost a lot of money to the taxpayer, since you could give each convict two decent full time jobs for the cost of incarcerating him or her. Moving on…

What I’m interested in, instead, is the perception of crime, and its effect on the social psyche. Because as my waitress exemplified and Stephen Harper pointed out, there is a disconnect between what is happening in people’s heads, and what is actually happening outside, in the real world, vis-à-vis crime.

A report by the Department of Justice published this year dissects the perception of crime among Canadians, and its relation to the media and the actual crime rates. Not a page into the report is found this: “Canadians reject the notion that the media play an influential role in determining their attitudes towards crime.”

I admire the Canadian public and their resoluteness on not being swayed by the potential bias of the media. Unfortunately Canadians are either not being honest, or, more likely, they are not as critical as they consider themselves to be. Because immediately following that statement is this: “The public is of the opinion that increases in violent crime, youth crime and crimes in general are real and not simply a result of media coverage.”6

Now, I could understand the confusion if even one of these crime categories had notably increased, but as discussed, violent crime and overall crime have been on the decline. Perhaps, as the public suggests, the ‘youth of today’ are just more criminal than they were back in the good old days. Unfortunately for the public (but fortunately for the Public), youth crime is also on the decline, with incidents down 25% from their peak in, you guessed it, 1991.7

Now there is much speculation about why the crime rate peaked in 1991, and has been dropping since, and again, in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this writ. Some say it is due to the economic growth in the nineties (despite a recession, and constantly increasing wealth inequality). Others attribute the changes to the toughening of gun laws (although less than 4% of crimes involve guns in Canada), and some even attribute the decline to the legalization of abortion decades prior (read Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics). But regardless of what the causes of lower crime rates may be, the decline still isn’t making it into the collective consciousness.

Interestingly enough, the most factual of the crime reporting (that done by peer-reviewed academic researchers and Statistics Canada) is not seen as the most credible. The sources considered the most believable by the public are chiefs of police and victim’s groups, notably those who stand to benefit the most from an overestimation of crime levels in terms of funding and/or agenda setting.

Of course the media play a role, and if the journalistic adage “if it bleeds is leads” applies, then crime will almost certainly be overrepresented. In Canada, the overall crime rate sits near 7 500 incidents per 100 000 people annually. If we consider the ratio of incidents per capita to equate roughly to the number of stories, only 7.5% would be about crime, less than 1% about violent crime, and less than 2/1000ths of a percent about murder.8 If the media were to accurately portray this, based on an average 16 stories per newscast (~1.4 minutes each), two newscasts per day, 365 days a year, assuming no repeated coverage, it would result in: 1 226 minutes of reporting about crime in general, and of these, 155 minutes would be about violent crime, and only 20 seconds would pertain to murder each year. By contrast, an average of 21% of TV news coverage is about crime, or an equivalent of 3 434 minutes, and most of this (16 of 21%) is regarding murder (an approximate 2 616 minutes worth).

Another noteworthy trend is that the number of murder stories began to increase sharply right around the time actual homicide rates started to drop. By the mid-1990s, the average number of stories about homicide had more than doubled, while the murder rate had gone down almost 20%.9 And as the homicide rate continued to fall during the 00s, reporting stayed largely the same, leaving a massive gap between what was shown to be occurring by the media, and what was actually happening outside.

One of the most critical details in all this homicide reporting is the kind of murder stories that are being run. According to the CBC’s self-published report On Balance, roughly half of suspects in its murder stories were unknown to the victim.10 Like the story of Tim McLean and Vince Weiguang Li, this is anomalous. In Canada, an average of 83% of murderers are known to their victims, almost half being friends or acquaintances, a third being family, and the remaining 18%, strangers.11 This is tremendously significant, because not only is murder overrepresented in reporting by a factor of almost eight thousand, but it is over-reporting random murders by a factor of over twenty thousand! No wonder the world seems like such a scary place.

Now of course there are policy implications for this, but what I really want to get at is the effect it has on the way people interact. Now, most of us have never been the victim or perpetrator of a murder, or even a violent crime, so our understanding of these topics is bound to be a bit fuzzy (mine included). But the skewed media coverage of murders (and crime in general) is bound to have an impact on how we interpret the safety of our society (and we have already established that is has). If people feel that they might be the victim of a crime perpetrated by a stranger, in all likelihood, they will be less trusting of strangers. If people are more skeptical, they are less likely to be kind. And less kindness is returned, in kind. And thus begins a vicious circle, leading to a mistrustful and unkind society. But perhaps I exaggerate.

However, a recent study was released regarding the empathy levels of college students in America (a nation which, despite higher crime reporting overall, follows similar reporting trends as Canada).12 The report found that the level of empathy in this demographic was the lowest it had been in three decades, down by 40%, based on responses to statements like: "I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."13

The causes of such a drop are, at best, speculation, but the researchers postulate an increase in media consumption, and the advent of social networking media creating a disconnect with real people. As for the latter, I can’t say I necessarily agree, since other studies have shown that users of sites such as Facebook actually have better developed social skills than non-users (although whether ‘social skills’ and empathy correlate is another question altogether). As for increased media consumption, well to me, that seems downright likely.

Today’s college students are likely to be 20ish years old. If you look at the dramatic increase in crime reporting (which started around 1993) that would be just around the time these children would have started watching television. This means that all the television news reporting of crime during this cohort’s lifetime would have been at the (massively) elevated level. It is probable that this would create a higher level of stranger anxiety compared to previous generations. And numerous studies have shown that when people dwell in a state of fear (even if diffuse), they are less likely to act with empathy.14

Now, just because the media over-report crime, it of course doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be mean to one another, or that society will collapse. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that fear-mongering and fear are related, and that those who are concerned first and foremost with their own well-being are less likely to be concerned about others.

Clive Barnes once said, “Television is the first truly democratic culture - the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want.” In the case of crime news, our own fascination with suffering and death has resulted in getting us more of what we want: material to feed that fascination, which in turn makes us more fearful, and less happy about the world we live in, even if things are, in fact, getting better.

And I am certainly no better than anyone else. Because while many in the quiet town of Valemount sipped away at their coffee, and drizzled blueberry syrup on their flapjacks, there I was, 7 AM, watching the gruesome denouement of Vince Weiguang Li’s horrific act. Fascinated by what electrochemical switches had misfired to make an otherwise normal man cut another’s head off.

But I can say with confidence that I am not afraid. I acknowledge that the murder was a one-off, a freak of chance, a statistical anomaly. I have little fear that when I board for another bus ride, I will become the next Tim McLean, and I have ridden the Greyhound with impunity several times since then, and slept like a baby (meaning I awakened in discomfort every few hours, in true Greyhound style). No, if I have a fear, it is not of murder or its attempt, violent crime or property damage. My fear instead comes from the perfectly level-headed and law-abiding, who in their proclaimed independence from influence, clamour for the expense of harsher sentencing, when social programs for the most vulnerable (and most prone to offend) are underfunded because we just can’t give a damn, anymore.
















14 Preston, Stephanie D., and Frans B. M. de Waal. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2002) 25, 1–72.


  1. Let's start up a good news media outlet. All good news, all the time...

    Today we've received word that Grandma Smith's cat Mittens returned home safe and unharmed after escaping from her apartment earlier this morning... Next up is Neil with all the tiddlywinks scores you can handle!

    Think it'll catch on?

  2. Tiddlywinks! Now that's my kind of sport!

  3. I would wager that in my country, at least, the influence of increasingly fundamentalist religious views may play a role similar to that of the media. People who hold such views have a vested interest in convincing others that things are so bad that only god can fix them.

    Likewise, the promise of an afterlife free of these perceived threats allows others to relate to the real people in this terrestrial life with less empathy. There are plenty who even welcome the so-called End of the World out of anticipation for a glorious afterlife, which can't do much to foster concern for real problems as opposed to a fascination with and exaggeration of violent crime.

  4. Whereas I welcome the so-called end of the world so I won't have to deal with all the people I don't like...

  5. To each his own, I guess. XD

  6. Arthur Benjamin asked why do we emphasize calculus in highschool when most people don't become engineers/scientists, but everyone gets fooled daily... I think he had a good point...

    I wonder how many people don't really understand how statistics works? Now that stat would REALLY scare me ;)

  7. Only 5% of people understand how statistics work (P<0.05, or 19 times out of 20)


  8. Hi.
    You wrote a post in your fishin hole blog years ago comparing travel mug to paper cup.
    I would like to reference it- it's now been taken down. I emailed the content of this post to myself back then (cuz i couldn't follow all the calculations on the spot).

    May I post your post on my blog, ref. your site, and make my comment?

    Actually you could do me a sizable favor: I want to show the cost of the ipad touch in terms of energy taken out of the earth, economic slavery of developing world factory workers who assemble it, and planned obsolete waste!

    Got anything for me?
    man or they [all one word] at gmail dot com.
    Or I can just ref. your erased post and make my own tangential comments.