Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Morning Call's Irresponsible Allentown Coverage

Here was the Morning Call's lede in its December 5 arrest follow-up of a homicide in center city Allentown the day before:
It's become a familiar scene in center city Allentown.
The "familiar scene", according to the Call? Murder in downtown Allentown.

It's one of the most consistent findings in media research that heavy media consumers grossly overestimate the rate of crime. (We all do; it's just that heavy media consumers assume the world's even more dangerous than the rest of us.) Crime is far less prevelant than we think.

The problem is that this distortion--and the inflammatory, 'if it bleeds it leads' style of coverage--has the potential to become self-fulfillng. The picture of downtown Allentown in the heads of most Lehigh Valley residents comes from the Call and Channel 69. The more they believe that murder is a "familiar scene"--however ridiculous as a claim to reality--the less likely they will venture downtown. They will warn off newcomers, and urge their downtown friends to leave. The downtown--which hardly needs an additional challenge--may become more unsafe, as the unintended consequence of a media distortion.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of perception to the health of any neighborhood. And most people's perception of American cities--Allentown included--comes from the images that we see and the stories we read in the media.

So what are the homicide figures for 2006? With three weeks or so remaining in the year, Allentown has 14 homicides. 2005? 21 (a record). And the past few years (the only that I could track down data for)?:

2004: 11
2003: 12
2002: 9
2001: 8
2000: 9
1999: 11

There are, of course, too many murders in Allentown, and the city's ongoing police hiring should help.

But murder as a "familiar scene"?

1 comment:

Mr. Damien Brown said...

Great post Jeff. That line had me steaming!