Crime - it doesn't pay to worry

WHY WORRY? A Ministry of Justice survey finds people are increasingly worried about crime, despite it being at a 33-year low.
WHY WORRY? A Ministry of Justice survey finds people are increasingly worried about crime, despite it being at a 33-year low.

Stay calm and carry on . . . that's the message coming from the Ministry Justice after it discovered Kiwis' fear of crime was not justified by the actual amount of crime.

A Justice Ministry-commissioned survey last month showed we believe lawlessness was on the rise even though official data puts crime at a 33-year low.

The survey found more than half the population thought crime was on the rise and those who had the least to fear - older women in rural areas - were the most concerned. Statistically, young Maori males in urban areas are more likely to be the victims of crime.

It also found that Kiwis feel relatively safe in their own neighbourhoods but think crime is on the rise elsewhere.

Justice Ministry boss Andrew Bridgman says the results are worrying because they show people are living in more fear than is justified - and in part he blames the media for a focus on crime that is out of proportion to the amount of crime committed, with television news the most culpable.

"We've got the public worried about something that they don't have to worry about to the degree they are worried about it," Bridgman says.

Victoria University criminologist Dr Trevor Bradley says the survey is no surprise and reflects the international mood.

"Crime rates are going down and yet people's perceptions are quite different."

He, too, puts some of the blame at the media's door.

He was involved in research to test the views of four communities which were chosen because they covered areas of high and low crime rates and high or low socio-economic deprivation.

All four believed crime wasn't a problem in their particular neighbourhood and that it hadn't gone up. They weren't any more or less anxious than they were in the past "but at the national level it was this horrible, very serious problem".

Basically, the research found most people thought they were relatively safe but the rest of the country was going to pot - most importantly, no matter where you lived, you thought crime was worse somewhere else.

Bradley said in focus groups people talked about their familiarity with their own area and conversations with neighbours and friends which shaped their views.

"But when we asked about the national picture those not from Auckland said South Auckland was a problem and those from South Auckland said they had heard it was really bad in Wellington and Christchurch.

"When people are interviewed about their particular neighbourhood they think things are roughly OK but when they take a national view they think it is getting worse," Bridgman said.

"When we asked them how they developed those views, it was about national media. "

The "Public Perceptions of Crime" survey showed television news was the most common source of information about crime, with 86 per cent of respondents citing it as a source. Websites and newspapers (63 per cent) and radio (56 per cent) were also prevalent. Worryingly for Justice and the Police, people rated the media as a more reliable source of crime statistics - between 85 per cent and 87 per cent for newspapers and television - than official crime statistics (72 per cent).

That suggests they believed there is an element of "juking the stats" - a practice whereby police downgrade offences, such as coding an aggravated robbery as a simple robbery.

The gap between reality and perception, exposed by the survey, is important because it affects the way people live their lives. "You don't want people to be fearful if they don't have to be," Bridgman says.

"You want people to enjoy the peace when you have got the peace and at the moment, in the scheme of things, we have relative peace."

But he has other reasons to try to change public perceptions, closer to home in the justice sector.

"It has consequences for the way people perceive the justice system and the effectiveness of it . . . We are experiencing a 33-year low in crime so that's a pretty major achievement. And yet in the survey 50 to 55 per cent of people think crime is on the increase."

As a result, the huge investment towards making the justice system more effective, and improving policing, was not getting recognition from the public, he said. Part of his solution would include a change to the way the media report crime, although he accepts high-profile murder cases, for instance, will always be newsworthy.

"You might have a grisly murder and that might be big news in a particular place and you might report that. But actually there are ways in which you could also report that: ‘Here's a murder which is a tragedy but actually, relatively, murders are down', rather than New Zealanders seeing murder on the front page and thinking ‘this is a big major problem that we have not come to grips with'. That's the nuanced challenge that the media have."

Canterbury University journalism lecturer Donald Matheson said in New Zealand a quarter to a third of national news reporting was crime-related. "It's pretty high, but it's a judgment call how much is too high."

He said US research had found a link between a high level of crime reporting and fear of crime but it was not a direct link.

He also questioned what stories reporters were not covering, as a result of the emphasis on crime.

High-profile stories, such as the Scott Guy murder trial, would always be covered prominently but he contrasted that with "a constant stream" of small crime stories that were not put in context.

The number of crime stories tended to go up in competitive news environments and his sense was that also happened as newsrooms got smaller.

To counter the media's influence, Bridgman said the ministry has plans for a new information campaign, based on overseas examples. The aim is to give Kiwis a different take on the numbers, crime levels and the actual risks they face.

Justice spokesman Richard Ninness said the ministry was preparing a sector report that would be used to present the statistics in a way that was meaningful, "not just a haze of numbers". That could include a website that would allow people to "mine the data" to find out more detail such as who was committing crimes. He said in the UK some police districts had prepared a high level "Did you know?" document. Others had provided access to "crime maps" that

allowed people to see at street level where crimes were occurring.

Bradley says the media's role is complex.

"On the one hand it's what people want to read so the media are satisfying that demand, and, on the other hand, it kind of fuels the fire."

At the local level people had more direct experience to draw on, but they relied on the media for a view of other areas. And the research showed that if they see crime in, say Christchurch, people in Wellington will be affected and think they are equally vulnerable.

But he says there is an element of "they would say that, wouldn't they" in the ministry's view.

"It's Justice and the Police's job to get as much good news out there as possible and ‘God damn it we are constantly confounded by public perceptions'." From a statistical viewpoint it was worth looking at how data was recorded and collated.

Also, a person's own experience might be different from an idealised view of how they should react.

"If I see a group of young people walking towards me it's all very well to have in the back of my mind that the police commissioner said everything's fantastic. But that doesn't stop me being intimidated by this group of young people. Perceptions and reality have never been the same thing."

However, he says recorded offending rates are down especially in the "volume crimes" such as theft from cars, burglary and dishonesty. Domestic violence and sexual crime numbers are on the rise but that they are affected by greater reporting and encouragement to report.

"Sexual assault is massively, massively under-reported though a lot of effort has been expended trying to improve the confidence levels of victims to report. The under-reporting goes from 60 per cent to 90 per cent in the literature."

The recent furore around the Roast Busters, an online forum in which men boasted of group sex with girls as young as 13, who had been plied with alcohol to render them incapable of giving consent, had not helped perceptions around reporting and handling of sexual abuse allegations, Bradley said.

Nor is he surprised non-city dwellers and those over 50 have the most jaundiced view.

"They are more likely to buy into some of those crime myths - that crime is going up. And of course . . . they are more likely to rely on those mainstream media stories. They get their information and base their perceptions on that type of material."

But, in reality, young Maori males in our urban centres were the most likely to be victims, especially of violence.

"Females are most at risk of domestic violence and most at risk, like the rest of us, of relatively minor property or dishonesty offending."

According to research, most crime was "intra-class - such as the poor preying on the poor both in property and violent offending".

Sunday Star Times