From the start of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently proven his effectiveness at using fear as a political weapon. At his 2016 inauguration, President Trump claimed that the United States was ridden with poverty and “rampant crime,” vowing to put an end to this “American carnage.” Since then, he has perpetuated false claims that murder rates are rising overall, even though violent crime rates declined in the nation’s largest cities in 2017, continuing the national trend of reduced crime. President Trump has also put unauthorized immigrants at the center of crime by exaggerating the scope and threat of MS-13.
According to new polling by the Center for American Progress and GBA Strategies, this fearmongering works. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents regarded crime on the national level as either a “major problem” or an “immediate crisis.” Meanwhile, only 52 percent felt the same way about their local communities. These levels of fear are inconsistent with national data on crime rates, which has found that both violent and property crime rates have fallen steadily since the 1990s. Furthermore, the drastic 36-percentage-point difference between local and national levels of concern suggests that a disparity exists between how individuals feel in their day-to-day lives and how they view crime in the context of the entire nation. Yet, despite this difference in perception, both national and local media overreport violent crime and are thus considered in this column.
Whether intentionally or not, the news media has amplified national-level fear through its reporting on President Trump. Because national crime perception is an abstract concept, it is likely that the news media plays an outsized role in shaping the public’s imagination. Indeed, the news media not only contributes to the public’s overestimation of crime through how it reports on the president’s controversies, but it also overreports on violent crime—feeding destructive racial and ethnic biases about those responsible.
The racial and ethnic criminal narrative in U.S. news media
Black Americans, and black men in particular, are overrepresented as perpetrators of crime in U.S. news media. This is especially true when looking at the incidence of violent crime. For example, one study of late-night news outlets in New York City in 2014 found that the media reported on murder, theft, and assault cases in which black people were suspects at a rate that far outpaced their actual arrest rates for these crimes. The news media also vilifies black people by presenting black crime suspects as more threatening than their white counterparts. It does this in several ways, such as by showing the mug shots of black suspects more frequently than those of white suspects; depicting black suspects in police custody more often; and paying greater attention to cases where the victim is a stranger.
In addition to stoking fear toward black people, the news media worsens racial tensions between black and white people by specifically perpetuating a narrative of white victimization. Homicide, for example, is a largely intraracial crime, but the news media greatly overreports on less common cases of black people committing homicide against white people.
Latinos are similarly maligned in the news media. A study found that 66 percent of the time, news coverage between 1995 and 2004 showed Latinos in the context of either crime or immigration rather than in other contexts. More recent analysis confirms these findings. This treatment of Latinos as criminals and outsiders is especially concerning given that Latinos are otherwise rarely represented in the news media. A recent study found that between 2008 and 2014, stories focused on Latinos and issues concerning Latino communities composed just 0.78 percent of coverage on national evening network news. To put this in perspective, CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN dedicated an average of just 87 seconds of coverage on Latinos per day—combined—from 2008 to 2014.
In the same way that it overrepresents black people in its coverage of crime, the news media’s overrepresentation of Latinos as lawbreakers and outsiders is troubling considering the overall lack of coverage of Latinos. Also, similar to the coverage of black people, coverage of Latinos often speaks in generalities when the story is unfavorable. Positive coverage, meanwhile, is likely to focus on individuals, which allows positive attributes to be seen as the exception, not the rule. In comparison, coverage of white suspects rushes to emphasize the humane aspects of the offender, even in instances when the crime is far more horrendous than a crime committed by blacks or Latinos.
How the news media affects public opinion
These biases have real-world impacts on public opinion. In a 2012 study, for instance, participants who consumed just one minute of negative news or entertainment on Latinos were much more likely to rate Latinos as unintelligent—even those participants who were disposed to have positive opinions about Latinos at the beginning of the study. The study also found that viewers of Fox News and other conservative talk shows were more likely to hold negative views of Latinos, despite being less likely to know Latinos personally. The result is the criminalization of Latino communities and a negative view of immigration that has led to so-called zero-tolerance policies that are not only ineffective, but also disastrous for those affected.
Biased perceptions of crime can be equally damaging when applied to the criminal justice system. For example, frequent news viewers are more likely to support the use of the death penalty in a hypothetical case, a preference that is dangerous for people of color. A study of Philadelphia, for example, found that black defendants were 3.9 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants who committed similar murders. This is most likely due to racialized perceptions of crime, as frequent news viewers are also less likely to believe that black people face structural barriers to success. In addition, public perception of more racial integration is closely linked to greater fear of crime and increased support for punitive measures.
These racialized perceptions play out in the courtroom as well. A study shows that for the same crime, black male offenders receive sentences that are, on average, 19.1 percent longer than those of their white male counterparts. Other studies show that both black and Latino youth are also more likely than white youth to have prosecutors request that they be tried as adults. None of these studies could find a factor other than race—such as the severity of the offense—to explain disparities in prosecutor requests. Thus, racial biases endanger black people and Latinos both inside and outside the criminal justice system—whether through racialized perceptions of crime or unfair sentencing policies.
The news media is an important American institution that is integral to shaping public perception. Purposefully or not, it has unfortunately often spread both fear and racial prejudice, which policymakers have exploited to push through agendas that harm black and Latino communities. Under the Trump administration, it is especially important that the news media look beyond its internal biases and refrain from giving unnecessary publicity to false claims. Only when policymakers and the public have an accurate and data-driven understanding of crime can the United States work toward fair criminal justice policies that are smart on crime.
Elizabeth Sun is a former intern for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.