We have a strange situation in Australia. At a time when people seem to be more worried by crime, the research evidence suggests crime rates are not increasing. How can we explain this apparent contradiction?
In a democratic society such as Australia, crime trends largely influence parliaments and ministries in crime policy management. If the media are found to be reporting an upward trend in crime figures, enough to unease the public, policy makers are put under pressure to increase punishment and change rules relating to procedures of criminal prosecution. Judicial decisions are intended to reflect public opinion; therefore a judge would then feel obliged to hand down harsher sentences ...view middle of the document...
Previous research indicates that the types of media used (e.g. radio/newspapers) as well as the forms of media (e.g. news/entertainment) alter perceptions of crime and justice (Reiner 2002).
As Cantril, Herzog & Gaudet (1940) articulated through their study on the fictitious “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, occasionally public perceptions of reality based upon the mass media can be more powerful than reality itself (Lowry, Nio & Leitner, 2003).
In Melbourne, 1987, a gunman shot several people and wounded many more. This type of violence in Australia at that time was shocking, and caused widespread alarm. Stories later appeared in Newspapers with headlines stating that 1987 had been a “bloody year; a year ruled by the gun”. Contrary to the newspaper statements, there had been 58 killings in total, of that, 46 were murders, which was lower than the previous year (1986), which had 67 cases, and 1977 which had Victoria’s highest number of murders, at 84. This is not to suggest that the problem of crime is not serious; however, the amplification of the extent of the problem caused unwarranted fear and anxiety.
According to the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) on crime and justice, 41.7% of respondents perceived crime rates as increasing a lot throughout the previous two years, 23.2% perceived crime rates as increasing a little over the same period, 24.6% perceived crime rates as remaining about the same, and only 2.9% of respondents perceived crime rates as falling a little or falling a lot (7.6% of respondents did not know). Remarkably, 89.5% of respondents held incorrect perceptions of crime rates (Roberts & Indermaur, 2009). From the respondents that held incorrect perceptions, there was a higher rate of females than males. The rate of females who responded that the level of crime was increasing a lot over the past two years was 39.6%; compared to the statistical rate of males, at 28.4%. This difference may be the result of females having a higher fear of becoming a victim of crime.
Weatherburn and Indermaur (2004) conducted a study into public perceptions of crime trends in New South Wales and Western Australia. New South Wales Respondents were asked about their perceptions of sexual assault, murders and shoplifting. Around 59% of female respondents believed sexual assault had become more common, compared to around 52% of male respondents. Less than 5% of all respondents assumed sexual assault had become less common. In the case of murder, around 59% of female respondents believed murder was more common, compared to 48% of male respondents. 8% of male respondents correctly assumed murder rates had lowered, compared to 3% of women. Lastly, 55% of women responded that shoplifting rates had become more common, compared to 47% of male respondents. The case was the same in Western Australia, with 55% of female respondents believing murder had become more common, compared to 31% of male respondents....