How do we put together data on crime and people’s perception of crime?
Emotional stories speak louder than facts, perhaps especially in a city as storied as New York. Writing of the city’s crime narratives during a much more dangerous era, Joan Didion wrote of observers’ “preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character and the reduction of events to narrative” — in other words, the nearly universal desire to make stories out of feelings, and then believe them. And when people ask me if “New York is safe,” they don’t want to know about numbers. They’re asking about feelings.
How people perceive crime, and how politicians represent it to the electorate, has less to do with data and more to do with vibes. In October, while fact-checking the claims of rising violent crime that drove many midterm campaigns, the Pew Research Center’s John Gramlich noted that “the public often tends to believe that crime is up, even when the data shows it is down.” Data from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that there’s no increase in violent crime across the board in the US, and yet for most years in the last three decades, the majority of America adults thought there was more crime nationally than the year before, even though the opposite was true. Indeed, over three-quarters of those polled in October by Politico/Morning Consult said they thought violent crime was rising nationally and 88 percent said it was increasing or remaining the same in their own communities.
This is why sociologists and others need to study not just what is happening, the facts, and the real numbers. Perceptions also matter and may matter more so as they can drive emotions, behavior, and policies.
This is clear consistently in the area of crime and violence where what people think is thinking may not match reality. For decades, particular perceptions about crime have influenced actions. See, for example, how it plays out in suburban settings. Instead of zooming out and looking at the big picture, certain narratives can prove powerful and persistent.
Thus, presenting facts is not always an effective approach. In this particular case, what would be an effective narrative that would better match the figures?