The Doorbell Company That’s Selling Fear

That’s right: A doorbell company wants to report crime news. It already is, actually. Several people on LinkedIn describe their jobs as “news editors” at Ring.

I hope a really thoughtful person gets that job, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is a really bad idea.

Read: What caused the great crime decline in the U.S.?

Crime has declined enormously over the past 25 years, but people’s perception of how much crime there is has not. A majority of Americans have said that crime is increasing in each of the past 16 years—despite crime in each major category being significantly lower today than it used to be.

A 2016 Pew survey found that only 15 percent of Americans believed (correctly) that crime was lower in 2016 than it had been in 2008—versus 57 percent who thought it had gotten worse. (Those inaccurate beliefs are not evenly distributed politically, with conservatives, Republicans, and Trump supporters each more likely to see dangers the statistics don’t support. A couple of hours spent watching Fox News makes the approach pretty clear.)

Gallup data show that a majority of Americans have only said that crime was getting better in their community once in the past 47 years—October 2001, when presumably they had other concerns to focus on.

These mistaken beliefs are driven largely by the editorial decisions of local media—especially local TV newscasts, which are just as bloody today as they were when murder rates were twice as high. There’s a term for it: “mean world syndrome,” the phenomenon where media consumption makes people see the world as more violent and dangerous than it really is. And TV has historically been the worst offender; a body of past research has shown that people who rely on local TV most for their local news are more fearful of crime; that local TV’s crime news disproportionately shows black criminals and increases racial fears; and that the more local TV news you watch, the more fearful you get.

Those fears and mistaken beliefs are important: Consuming more local TV crime news is associated with supporting more punitive anti-crime measures, and reducing exposure to crime news can even increase presidential approval ratings.

Read: The criminalization of gentrifying neighborhoods

A report from Pew last month asked people about various topics in local news and asked both whether they thought they were important or interesting and, if so, why. Did they consume news about a topic because it was important to their daily lives; because it was important, but not to their daily lives; or just because they found it interesting?

Those surveyed overwhelmingly said crime news was important. But more striking is that so many of them said it was important to their daily lives. To put that in context, the top three “important to their daily lives” topics were weather, crime, and traffic. Weather and traffic really are important to your daily life! Figuring out what to wear or which route to take to work are very useful services that local news can provide. But local TV news has convinced Americans that stories of violence are news-you-can-use at the same sort of level. (Only 9 percent said they followed local crime news because it was “interesting.”)

In recent years, a number of newspapers have decreased the emphasis they put on crime stories in their coverage. There are a number of reasons for this shift. TV is always going to have an advantage when covering day-to-day crime. There are fewer reporters to go around than there used to be. And as newspapers have retooled for digital subscriptions over page views, crime news is less important to what they’re offering readers.

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