“By sensationalizing crime figures, the media is not playing its role as an unbiased watchdog.”

Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay writes for the Birmingham Business School Blog:

In most Western countries, including the UK, crime rates have fallen over the recent years. Surprisingly, this fall has continued during the recession. Yet, even during the years of steady decline, media portrayals often suggest that crime has been on the rise.

It’s therefore no surprise that when crime figures actually increased this year, the media sensationalized the development. A dramatic headline – “LAWLESS Britain: More than half of Britons fear Police have LOST control, poll says” – is reflective of the wider problem that we are facing. It gives the impression that we live in a dangerous country, filled with criminals who are fearlessly terrorizing people with the police helpless to control them.

This sensationalizing of a so-called “crime surge” in Britain has also been seen in the media’s coverage of the increase of knife crime in London, with comparisons that the capital is facing an epidemic to rival New York. However, the reality is far more complex: part of the “surge” may be no more than a year-to-year fluctuation. There is no reason to believe that we have suddenly entered an era of lawlessness.

This is not to say that crime isn’t rising. We know that the landscape is changing, with law enforcements struggling to grasp cyberc-rime. Furthermore, in its admirable attempt to tackle exploitation and prevent terrorism, the police forces may well be stretched beyond adequate resource. We can expect the police force to have less time to tackle the pettier, but more visible, crimes as the public would like.

The findings of the survey, on which the media have based their headlines, are contradictory. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Police officers have lost control of our streets and criminals no longer have any fear of being caught and brought to justice”, 57% agreed or agreed strongly. Yet the same survey shows a reasonable degree of satisfaction with the police force, with only 14% rating it poor or very poor. Moreover, 92% of people feel safe in the streets during the day and 56% do at night.

While there is a genuine fear of crime among some sections of the population, one of the reasons behind the apparent worry may be due to the way that the survey questions were framed. Even among victims of crime, more two-thirds are satisfied with the police.

Crime’s impact on society is enormous. There are costs incurred not only in the criminal justice system, but also in health care and the physical and psychological well-being of victims and their families. In covering this, the media has an important role to play in informing citizens and highlighting failures in policing, but news should be based on facts. By sensationalizing crime figures, the media is not playing its role as an unbiased watchdog.