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Youth crime on decline, but coverage suggests the opposite

Sun, The (Baltimore, MD) May 13, 2001 Section: PERSPECTIVE Edition: FINAL Page: 1C

Media fuels fear about youth crime Perception: If juvenile crime is at its lowest level in decades, why do so many Americans believe otherwise?

Jane Twomey QUESTION: Do you think young people are becoming more violent today?

If you answered yes, you're not alone. A recent study commissioned by Building Blocks for Youth, an alliance of children's advocates, researchers, law enforcement professionals and community organizers, reports that 62 percent of the American public think that youth crime is on the rise. More than 70 percent of respondents to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last year felt that a shooting was likely in their children's school.

The problem is that neither perception is correct.

Youth crime is at its lowest level in decades.

The FBI Uniform Crime Reports showed that between 1993 and 1999, youth homicides decreased 68 percent to their lowest rate since 1966.

In 1998, the National Crime Victimization Survey showed that youth crime overall was at its lowest rate in the survey's 25-year history. School killings have dropped 72 percent since 1992. The number of children killed in school violence is about half the number of Americans killed every year by lightning.

But you wouldn't know this by watching the news on television or reading the newspaper. Consider the recent coverage of Nathaniel Brazill, the 14-year-old Florida boy charged as an adult with the shooting death of his teacher. How often does this happen? Not too often; that's why it's news. And that's the problem. Seventy-six percent of Americans form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the media, and the news media aren't getting the story right.

Here's what the latest study found:

First, the news media report crime, particularly violent crime, far out of proportion to its actual occurrence. While the national crime rate dropped by 20 percent from 1990 to 1998, there was an 83 percent increase in the amount of crime coverage on network television. During the same time period, the national homicide rate was down by almost 33 percent; yet network news coverage of homicide jumped 473 percent. Homicides account for about .1 percent to .2 percent of all arrests in America, yet approximately 28 percent of all crimes reported on the nightly news are homicides.

Second, a disproportionately large number of perpetrators of violent crime on the news are people of color, while a disproportionately small number are white.

At the same time, white victims are featured more often and more prominently in the news than victims of any other race. And while people of all races are far more likely to be killed by someone of the same race, television news coverage paints a different reality. Interracial crime is far more prevalent on TV news than it is in real life. It's no wonder that whites overestimate their likelihood of being a victim of interracial crime by a rate of 3-to-1.

Third, media coverage of young people is dangerously skewed. What little coverage there is tends to focus on young people as violent criminals. One study of local television news in California found that 68 percent of all stories about violent crime involved young people, though they accounted for only 14 percent of all violent crime arrests. At the same time, the media vastly underreport violence committed against young people. Not surprisingly, young people of color are represented more often as violent criminals than are white youths. News magazines began associating the term "criminal" with young black men in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the label still applies, only now it's applied to Hispanics as well.

All of this creates what the Building Blocks for Youth study calls a "misinformation synergy" that greatly misinforms the public about the nature and threat of violent crime in America. It's not just that violent crime is over-reported, or that young people and people of color are over- represented as criminals and under-represented as victims. Or even that whites are portrayed as victims of interracial violent crime far more often than is the case. It's that all three of these occur simultaneously, most of the time, in most of the news coverage Americans see. The cumulative effect reinforces stereotypes and induces an unnecessary fear about the randomness, unpredictability and inevitability of crime.

Why does this happen?

Part of the answer may lie in an American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) report released last month noting that for the first time in 22 years, the number of "minority" journalists working at daily papers dropped. Last year, 12 percent of all journalists in America were people of color, while most of the top decision makers in the news business are white and male (85 percent in 1991).

Simply bringing more people of color into the newsroom -- and into decision-making positions -- might not be the answer. A murder will always be a bigger news story than robbery, and the murder of a prominent person will always garner more attention than the murder of an unknown. But who decides? Some media scholars argue that news values, norms and routines have far more influence over what gets reported than the color of a person's skin. But who decides what these values, norms and routines are? One doesn't need a Ph.D. to figure that out.

The alarming fact about these statistics is not simply that they are wrong, but that they just might be influencing public policy in ways that are deleterious to young people.

Consider this: While youth crime was going down during the 1990s, 47 states made it easier to try youths in adult court. Last year, 14-year-old Lionel Tate was convicted of first-degree murder in an adult court for killing a 6-year-old girl while practicing moves he'd seen on his favorite wrestling show. He was 12 at the time of the murder. If his conviction stands, he may spend the rest of his life in prison.

While some might argue that this case is exceptional, the fact is that in 1998, 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults. Between 1985 and 1997, the number of youths under 18 sentenced to adult state prisons more than doubled. In addition, a recent study underwritten by the Justice Department and several leading foundations reported that black and Hispanic youths are treated more harshly by the justice system than their white counterparts.

While some critics assert that this is simply because black and Hispanic youth commit more crimes, the report found that this factor does not account for the disparities in justice found at every step of the juvenile justice process.

For example, although blacks under the age of 18 accounted for 26 percent of all juvenile arrests in 1998, they accounted for 58 percent of all youths admitted to state adult prisons.

The original goal of the juvenile justice system was to rehabilitate young people so that they could become productive citizens. Today, states are more likely to view juvenile offenders, particularly blacks and Hispanics, as hardened criminals in need of punishment. Rehabilitation is not the buzzword these days; punishment is.

In March 2000, 62 percent of voters in California approved Proposition 21, a wide-ranging initiative that allows youths to be tried as adults. Before Prop 21, juvenile court judges decided where a case belonged, based on the youth's age, record and offense.

But 62 percent of California voters think the juvenile court system is no longer capable of handling what one newspaper calls the "growing epidemic of teen violence."

So, if the proposition stands, district attorneys may decide where youth offenders go -- and increasingly they are deciding to lock young people away in adult prisons and throw away the key. But where is this growing epidemic of teen violence? Where are the "super predators" that need to be locked away in adult prisons?

It's a curious thing that while youth crime is decreasing, the news media tell us just the opposite. At the same time, the increasingly privatized prison industry is booming. It's a curious thing.

More information on youth and crime is available at the following Web sites:
Building Blocks for Youth
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Bureau of Justice Statistics

Jane Twomey is an assistant pro fessor in the School of Communica tion at American University in Washington.

Illustration: Photo(s)

Florida case: Media attention focused on the trial of 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill, accused of murdering a teacher, fuels the perception that youth crime is on the rise. Here, the youth is questioned by Marc Shiner, a seasoned prosecutor. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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