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by Elliot Leven

The media has become obsessed with crime.  Even a quick glance at newspaper front pages reveals a bizarre focus on crime stories.  A high proportion of editorial writing about crime is devoted to advocating tougher sentences. The underlying premise is that, if only sentencing were stiffer, crime rates would drop substantially.

Unfortunately, those who take this tack don’t let facts interfere with their opinions. Statistics from many places and times make it clear that the biggest driver of crime rates is demographics. Young males tend to commit more crimes than other groups. When there are relatively lots of young males in the population, crime rates go up. When there are fewer, crime rates go down. This is a matter of fact, not opinion.

Also, there is a strong statistical correlation between crime and poverty. It is fortunate that America has 50 states and that some of these states are quite a bit richer than others. This allows us to easily compare crime rates in richer and poorer states. There is a strong, though not perfect, correlation between crime and poverty.

Of course, most young males are not criminals. Of course, most poor people are not criminals. But the numbers don’t lie. 

Having said that, I agree that some sentences really are too light, and that some individual criminals really should spend more time in jail. Also, some sentencing regimes might have a temporary effect on the rates of specific crimes (e.g. if you give stiff sentences to all young car thieves, the local rate of car theft may go down for a year or two). 

But let’s not delude ourselves. Tough sentencing has no permanent effect on overall crime rates. Journalists who pretend otherwise are not being honest with their readers. 

So why are the media obsessed with crime? For one thing, it is cheap and easy to report.  Police services hold convenient news conferences.  It is easy to cover trials and sentencing hearings at the courthouse.  No investigative journalism is required.  In fact, no expertise at all is required. A reporter just has to report what the crime was, what the verdict or sentence was, and then the reporter has to ask the friends and family of the victim for a few quick comments.  Cheap and easy.

As for editorial writing, no one likes criminals, especially violent ones.  Few citizens lose any sleep if a criminal’s sentence is a bit on the harsh side.  But many citizens are outraged if a sentence is a bit on the lenient side.  Newspapers want readers.  TV stations want viewers.  It is easy to understand why the editorial tendency is to posture as “tough on crime”.

Incidentally, the press couldn’t care less about most crimes.  The only ones that get any media coverage are major crimes like murders, crimes involving sex, crimes involving celebrities, or crimes with dramatic video footage (e.g. high-speed car chases).  

In short, the press is not serving the public well when it comes to crime reporting.  But no media mogul ever went to jail for poor journalism.

Elliot Leven has been a Winnipeg lawyer since 1993. His preferred practice areas are labour and employment law. He has been a Commissioner on the Manitoba Human Rights Commission since 2002.  In his free time, he currently serves as president of the Community Unemployed Help Centre. 


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

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