Lichter's study of crime stories on the news found some other startling results: Crime was the leading television news topic in the 1990s, far outpacing international and national news--even presidential campaign coverage. During 1995, for example, the three networks aired 2,574 crime stories, more than triple the total three years earlier.
"It's one thing to see an interview with an unemployed worker and another to see a blood-splattered crime scene," Lichter said. "That holds your attention."
Television news executives, who are somewhat weary of the criticism and defensive about their crime coverage, say the current trend is to add more balance to their broadcasts. But they readily acknowledge that a "good" crime story with video does grab viewers, and that means higher ratings.
"Do I think there are too many crime stories on television? Yes," said Pat Casey, managing editor at KCBS-Channel 2 in Los Angeles. "But it's not nearly what it was or what it could be. . . . Every story needs to be judged on its merits. I think that's our responsibility."
Local television stations have ever more vivid ways of covering crime. With the rise of freelancers who shoot nighttime crime video and then sell it to the stations, as well as the use of news helicopters, stations could rely solely on crime news for their broadcasts if they wished.
"In Los Angeles, the thing you need to watch is stringer tape [the nighttime video] and helicopters," Casey said, adding that the station has cut in half the number of freelance video pieces it buys. "In any afternoon in Los Angeles, you could find death and destruction to fly over."
Fear of Crime Is Good for Business
The fear of crime also has spawned whole new areas of research for criminologists, sociologists and others. At Florida State University, Ted Chiricos, a professor in the criminology and criminal justice school, said he has conducted several large-scale surveys on that issue.
In his most recent study, the impact of local television crime news on residents' fear levels was significant, regardless of whether the residents lived in high-crime areas.
"People living in places with lower crime rates and people with high crime rates all had the same levels of fear," Chiricos said. "Local news is definitely related to higher levels of fear."
The Times Poll, which surveyed 1,143 city residents with a margin of error of 3 percentage points in either direction, found similar results. In that poll, 80% of city residents believed that media reports of violent crimes increased their personal fear of crime, with more than half saying it increases fear "a lot."
The same poll found that a majority of the residents--58%--did not know anyone who had been shot, stabbed or seriously wounded in Los Angeles.
But crimes, particularly violent ones such as assaults or rapes, leave a legacy of fear in victims. For those people, declining crime statistics are nearly meaningless. Once the crime occurs, victims often say, it shatters whatever sense of security they once had.
As a result, the message put out by some police and politicians confirms victims' perceptions of crime.
Fear not only helps police and politicians, it also is good for business.
The Correctional Corp. of America, a publicly held company that builds private prisons, has looked at California with relish: The state needs to build new prisons to accommodate the 25,000 more inmates expected by 2000. The prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., has become one of the most powerful lobbies in Sacramento--in part because it donates huge sums to political campaigns.
The security industry is booming. Americans spent an estimated $14 billion on professionally installed electronic security products and services last year, and more than one in five homes in the United States and Canada had electronic alarm systems by the end of the year.
Experts say these companies, not unlike campaigning politicians, use the public's fear of crime to sell the latest home- and car-alarm systems and other protective devices.
Aside from their television and print ads--which can be graphic in depicting lone motorists securing their cars--some security, alarm and lock companies regularly promote products by manipulating crime data so crime appears to be worse.
For example, at the end of a recent release issued by a lock company, officials said that "in the time it has taken you to read this article, another nine property thefts have occurred. . . . Theft is a crime of opportunity; eliminating the opportunity eliminates your chance of becoming a victim."
One security alarm company sent out notices listing burglars' "likes and dislikes," including these: "Burglars prefer homes near highways and homes with privacy fences and large shrubs. . . . Their favorite time to operate is during the day, when no one is home. Deterrents for burglars include security systems and dogs."
Those who work in the industry defend their practices.