By Elina Lingappa
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Amid public debates concerning police funding and differing approaches to criminal justice, particularly for that of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a growing number of individuals have begun to shed light on the role of media-perpetuated misconceptions.
Many people have taken to twitter to discuss how both journalism and social media influences public rhetoric.
Earlier this week, twitter user @mayavada exemplified this when she responded to Michelle Tandler, a fellow San Franciscan resident, who was calling for more attention to San Francisco’s crime problem.
In a long twitter thread, Tandler said that, even as a self -labeled “proud liberal,” she was ashamed of the city’s new progressive policies.
She claimed “The San Francisco government has abdicated on [their] responsibility. It is focused on equity and ‘justice’ at the expense of fulfilling its basic duties… moral grandstanding winning over data, logic, and facts.”
@Mayavada approached the issue in a different light, saying, “This is so uniquely San Francisco. The most arch right people on earth are afraid to identify as anything but “liberal” or “progressive,” even as they argue for a police state, incarcerating the poor, and unironically use terms like “social justice warrior.””
She also rejected Tandler’s claim that “data, logic, and facts” were being abandoned, seeing that instead as code for Tandler’s “ultra-right politics”.
The debate between the two twitter users speaks to a larger controversy around what the “basic duties” of the criminal justice system truly are, and what data and facts are underscored, particularly after the election of San Francisco District Attorney Boudin.
Both of these questions have a dramatic impact on public perceptions of crime.
The Pew Research Center published a 2016 study reflecting the discrepancy between public perceptions of crime and the reality of crime statistics. Their findings demonstrated that Americans believe crime to be far more prevalent than it actually is.
David Menschel, a twitter user, responded to the graph saying it reflected, “a massive failure of American journalism.”
In another example of the media’s failure to portray the correct context surrounding statistics, the San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article claiming, “Car break-ins are up 753 percent in S.F.’s tourist hub.”
However, upon closer examination, the percentage is only reflective of a change between 2020-2021, which puts 2021 cat break-in rates at a similar level of 2019 after the massive decrease in 2020.
Hence, 2020’s drop and the subsequent increase in 2021 is more reflective of the pandemic than any sort of drastic policy change.
Many people took to social media to point out this lack of context, including Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina.
She said, “if you wanted to caption this graph to actually inform readers, this isn’t what you’d say, But If you want to scare people about rising crime rates…”
Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, published an article in 2020 taking a deep dive into this oversight by journalists and media outlets.
He cited several statistics he felt were overlooked in the supposedly data-driven debate.
For example, according to the New York Times, while only 0.7 percent of annual deaths are due to homicide, homicides still account for 23 percent of media coverage deaths, demonstrating the over representation violent crime receives in mainstream media.
Not only are the depictions skewed, says Caulfield, but the claim that crime is increasing is simply false.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study demonstrated that violent crime in the United States has actually decreased drastically in the last couple of decades.
Furthermore, not only has crime decreased overall, but new progressive de-policing strategies do not exacerbate crime.
In fact, studies cited by Caulfield showed “no evidence of an effect of arrest rates on homicide rates.”
The question remains, if this sort of journalism is so misleading, why does it continue to happen?
According to Caulfield, negative and fear-inducing headlines do significantly better than positive ones.
Effectively, these news stories are more marketable: “If it bleeds, it leads” is the old newspaper axion.
The impact, as Caulfield says, is, “people believe crime is getting worse. Indeed, the gulf between the reality of crime and public perceptions is staggering.”
This misconception surrounding crime statistics translates into conflicting views on the role and effectiveness of the criminal justice system in its entirety.
For those like Tandler, who perceive crime as rising, progressive policies to decriminalize many spheres and defund law enforcement undermine the tough-on-crime role the system should be filling.
However, others, such as Caulfield, who point out crime statistics without context work primarily to enforce fear mongering.
Thus, the role of the criminal justice system should fill an opposing role to the tough-on-crime model.
The rhetoric which underscores “rising” crime, according to Takenya Nixon Brail of Teen Vogue, is not only misleading in regard to the criminal justice system, but actually exacerbates many of the flaws in the system.
Brail wrote an in-depth op-ed for Teen Vogue centered around crime in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, particularly a drive-by shooting which resulted in the death of a young girl.
In the article, she expands on how media-driven fear mongering actually worsens crime and harms many marginalized communities nationwide.
“For the past half century, politicians and police, enabled by all-too-willing media, have weaponized tragedies, cherry-picked statistics, and become fear mongers over crime,” she wrote.
“They’ve done so to convince people that, somehow, it’s a good idea to support the same costly, wasteful, and yes, violent strategies of policing and criminalization that continue to create conditions that allow [for similar tragedies],” she continued.
According to testimonies of Brail, Caulfield, and countless others, the data, logic, and facts actually support a future defined by divesting in the carceral and policing systems.
However, narratives driven by large media outlets seem to perpetuate the opposing rhetoric, which has fed wide-spread fears around crime nationwide, and particularly in the San Francisco area.
“This is a historic moment with the potential of leading to real and meaningful change,” Caulfield wrote. “Now, more than ever, we need to stick to the facts.”
Brail echoed his sentiment, calling for a critical look into the future of the criminal justice system.
“How do we get to a more rational place that is better for all of us? We need to refuse to continue being duped by the fearmongers, by a self-interested police force, and the leaders beholden to them,”
She adds, “Most importantly, we need to have patience for change.”