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TV News Fuels Crime Fears
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The recent FBI report that crime rates have plunged seven years in a row should be cause for great joy. But many police officials instead have expressed frustration that much of the public still doesn't believe they have. He blamed the media for fueling public perceptions that crime still rages and criminals lurk behind every street lamp.

But for many who call the shots in TV newsrooms, frustrated police officials and FBI crime stats aren't likely to change how they present crime news. They've spent the past two decades turning TV- crime verite into a sure fire formula for ratings.

That formula is ridiculously simple. Just have helicopters and mobile camera crews hover over or roam around city streets looking for police car chases, dead bodies, gang shoot-outs, and drug busts. And most importantly, make sure those city streets are in black and Latino neighborhoods. The formula is bloody, exploitative, and racist.

But it is a smash success. It has hooked so many Americans on the murder and mayhem nightly news broadcasts that the networks have spun off a legion of hybrid clones. These shows simulate live-action crime chases and busts and worse they almost always depict blacks and Latinos as violent criminals. This has convinced many white suburbanites that their lives are at grave risk from violence-prone, drugged out Latinos and African-Americans.

The truth is they aren't. The FBI crime report noted that Americans are at less risk of becoming a murder, robbery, or assault victim today then in past years. It also noted that while blacks and Latinos commit a disproportionate amount of the street crime in America most whites still aren't at risk. The overwhelming majority of the crimes committed by blacks and Latinos are against other blacks and Latinos.

The media fetish with crime and the public's indulgence of that fetish is not just harmless escapism and innocent fun. It has had disastrous public policy consequences. It has boosted the number of persons jailed in America to a record high two million prisoners. This is the largest number of any nation on the planet. Accodring to the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based public advocacy group, California alone has built 21 new prisons since 1984, and taxpayers cough-up $4 billion yearly to run them. In the same period the state could manage to scrounge up only enough funds to build one new university campus despite a bulging student population.

It has prompted passage of an avalanche of three strikes and draconian drug laws which have locked-up mostly black and Latino offenders for non-violent property or drug-related crimes. It has ignited a wave of legally questionable random vehicle checks, property searches and seizures, youth curfew laws, and injunctions that have battered civil rights and civil liberties protections. It has fed stereotypes among many whites that violent crime comes exclusively with a black or Latino face and fanned suspicions among many blacks and Latinos that race is always the factor when they are beaten or shot by the police.

It has fueled the dangerous cycle of arrest and incarceration for blacks and Latinos. One out of three young black males are now in jail or prison, on parole or probation, and many blacks and Latinos tell harrowing tales of being harassed by police for driving while black and brown. It has allowed many politicians to offer quick fix solutions such as more police, prisons, and tough laws rather than more drug counseling, vocational job and skills training, education, and violence reduction programs to keep the streets safer.

But TV executives don't seem to be much troubled by these things. They get their ratings. The public gets its nightly dose of lurid crime sensationalism. And police officials will continue to get more frustrated when the public believes that they are doing nothing right in the battle against real crime.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:ehutchi344@aol.com

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