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MICROPROCESSING

How News About Crime Warps Your Brain

And why it matters where you read it

Photo: gaiamoments/Getty Images

InIn the past month alone, the United States has been struck repeatedly with a now familiar horror: the mass shooting. First Gilroy, California, at the town’s cherished annual garlic festival, then another in El Paso, Texas, and finally a third in Dayton, Ohio. To me, it felt like just another example of how the supposed safety in which I live my life was dissolving, leaving so many of us raw and exposed to the horror and injustice of gun violence.

I saw that fear echoed in my friends and on social media, where people expressed how they now enter public spaces with anxiety and trepidation: always note the exits and keep your wits about you. Feeling like we’re able to institute small habits to keep ourselves safe in the face of terrorism is one way that we can emotionally — and, God forbid, physically — survive it. We don’t have ultimate power over our circumstances in public, but there are small ways we can take control, allay our anxieties, and feel safe.

It made me wonder about how much the relentlessness of the news — and the thousands of tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram stories that multiply it — contributes to this fear and anxiety. Young people aged 18–34 spend 36% of our days either on our phones or online at a computer, which is a lot of time to be confronted with stories about shootings and other forms of crime and violence. Does staring into the abyss of our phones for all those hours make us more scared of being victims of a crime than we should actually be?

It turns out, of course, that it’s complicated.

Violent and property crime in the United States has dropped dramatically over the past several decades. Depending on whose numbers you use, the crime rate nationwide has fallen 49% to 73% between 1993 and 2017. Yet six out of 10 Americans polled by Gallup in 2018 say they feel that crime has gone up.

Historically, much of this fear has been attributed to the media — think nightly local news broadcasts that inevitably start off with violent crime, and newspaper tabloids that lived up to the “if it bleeds, it leads” adage.

Does staring into the abyss of our phones for all those hours make us more scared of being victims of a crime than we should actually be?

“Traditional media systematically misrepresent what crime is like, and it does that pretty consistently,” says Sean Patrick Roche, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University in San Marcos. Stories would typically focus on what’s novel and violent, says Roche, which — by definition — doesn’t reflect what’s going on in people’s normal, daily lives. And in part because of space and time restrictions, especially in television news, stories are simplified to the point of losing all nuance.

“So a crime story gets boiled down to a bad person, usually a man, usually maybe a minority man, did a bad thing and either we caught him or we didn’t catch him,” says Roche. “And that’s it.”

Decades of research have shown that watching the news and, to a lesser extent, reading the newspaper are associated with increased racial stereotyping, fear of crime, and the desire to punish criminals.

“Local television news consumption is consistently related, in my opinion, to views about crime and stereotypes about race,” says Justin T. Pickett, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Albany in New York. This is in large part because of traditional media’s tendency to over-report crimes in which men of color are perpetrators and white people are victims, and under-report crimes in which white people are perpetrators and people of color are victims, he says.

Much of this research has been cross-sectional (meaning it looks at data and finds relationships at one point in time, rather than over a period of time) but “they probably have a causal relationship, even if the evidence is not causal design,” says Pickett. “I’d put my money on it.”

Though research on the impact of social media and internet news on the public’s perception of crime is still in its early stages, research so far primarily suggests that reading news online has little effect on a reader’s fear of crime and desire to punish criminals — and may, in fact, reduce both. Roche and Pickett published research in 2015 that found that, in contrast to findings about traditional media, internet news exposure is not related to anxiety about becoming a victim or supporting harsh punishments for criminals.

Pickett published further research this year that found that reading news online wasn’t linked with readers stereotyping African Americans as criminals the way traditional media does; it might even actively reduce people’s stereotypes about African Americans and their relationship to crime. The source seems to matter — when participants found stories on Facebook or Instagram, they were more likely to stereotype, while if they found the stories on Twitter, they were less likely to stereotype.

Pickett cautioned that the work is preliminary research performed on college students, which may not be relevant to the public at large. But he has a theory for why internet news doesn’t have the same negative effect on people as traditional news does.

With television news, he says, the consumer is limited to whatever the station decides to show. If your local news station focuses on crime all week, then that’s probably what people are going to be influenced by and thinking about. With internet news, though, it’s different, because people can more easily choose what they want to consume.

“People can customize exactly what they look at, and from what I understand, people spend their time reading about the Kardashians, and not about crime,” he says. “They have more control over the stories they click on. That should reduce people’s fear of crime.”

The diversity of websites, publications, and topics to discuss might make internet users generally less afraid of crime because they aren’t choosing to solely focus on crime stories when they get their news online. But with television news, particularly local news, you don’t get as much choice in the stories you’re consuming, and those stories are often crime-related — hence the corresponding rise in fear of crime that is related to television news but not to online news.

In other words, if you’re not reading about it, you’re not thinking about it, and if you’re not thinking about it, you’re probably less afraid of it.

Which is how we get back to our fear of mass shootings. Though most of us don’t spend our time on Twitter reading about and discussing crime in our communities, we’re more likely to when there are mass shootings. It makes sense: While the incidents of mass shootings in the United States is rising, they’re still extremely rare compared to other types of crime, including other forms of gun crime, but they are particularly horrifying. It’s very difficult to forget about something so tragic; it lodges in our minds, and for many of us, what’s on our minds ends up on social media. Which, in turn, causes us to ruminate on it. And so on.

If you’re not reading about it, you’re not thinking about it, and if you’re not thinking about it, you’re probably less afraid of it.

“There’s something called the availability heuristic,” explains Pickett. “What that means is the way people estimate how likely something is to occur is how easy it is for them to recall an instance of it.” You’re probably more likely to hear about instances of terrorism than situations in which people have drowned in the bathtub, he says, which can result in greater fear of terrorism than fear of your bath — despite the fact that drowning in the bathtub is a more likely way for you to go out, statistically speaking.

A news organization that reported, in detail, every death that occurred every day would be grim and, eventually, boring: so and so died of a heart attack (common), so and so died in a car accident (common), so and so drowned in the bath, etc. It’s mostly the more unusual and horrific events that get reported precisely because of their novelty. But this has the side effect of making people fear things that for the most part, they don’t need to fear — though it’s absolutely understandable that they do.

“Focusing on danger increases people’s perceptions of the general danger in their environment,” says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, an independent research organization that focuses on technology and media. “Fear drives people to seek answers and look for blame to feel safe.”

If you’re starting to feel frightened, overwhelmed, and upset about the flood of terrible news overtaking your social media, it’s 100% okay to step away and even take a few days’ break if you can. I, personally, am terrible at that, so instead I employ the mute button to temporarily silence keywords if I find my anxiety or depression spiking in response to the news. If you already know that an incident, such as a crime, has occurred, there’s little reason for you to keep hitting yourself over the head with it if it makes you feel frightened or stressed out.

You can also turn that fear into action: writing to your local representatives, or donating to charities such as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates for legislation that keeps communities safe from gun violence, or Sandy Hook Promise, which develops gun violence prevention programs and petitions for better gun safety laws.

And if you feel that you need to calm yourself with news about the Kardashians’ latest shenanigans, do that! If you’d rather read reviews about the new Samsung phone to distract yourself, that’s fine too. As for me, I have Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date en route to my apartment as we speak. When times feel as particularly dark and miserable as they do now, there’s nothing more I want to read than something that celebrates love.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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