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Mar 4, 2011

If the figures don’t say what we want them to say, they must be wrong

Ever noticed how, if you rely on the tabloid media, you're always being told that crime is getting worse? That it's just one slow, devastating slide into anarchy and chaos, it never get

Ever noticed how, if you rely on the tabloid media, you’re always being told that crime is getting worse? That it’s just one slow, devastating slide into anarchy and chaos, it never gets any better – no matter how many “tough on crime” policies our politicians implement (thereby apparently proving that we need to get tougher until it eventually works)… That there’s never any improvement, no matter what we try.

When crime figures are released that actually show crime rates dropping, we don’t see the reverse of the headlines we get when they increase. Quite the contrary – we get attacks on the figures themselves. How dare they contradict our narrative! We’ve told you [our version of] what’s going on, and we’ll only accept the figures that back us up. Anything else must be a lie.

And their readers lap it up uncritically.

I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, when you’re young you don’t read this sort of media. You are largely unaware of the sort of terrifying tales of disaster in your environment because you’re not interested in them. Then, as you get older and work full time and your source for external information about the world is the tabloids and commercial TV, all of a sudden all you’re hearing about is the most terrible incidents that occur. You’ve gone from hearing nothing about them to hearing only about them – naturally you feel that the world is getting more dangerous and scary.

Which photograph makes the Herald Sun? The punch up outside a nightclub, or the ordinary non-violent Saturday night of pretty much everyone else? Of course the bad gets disproportionate coverage.

And of course as we age – as our joints lose their flexibility, as we experience real pain, as we see those around us experience accidents and injury, we lose our youthful fearlessness. We have kids, and as we loosen the apron strings and they are exposed to the rest of the world, well, naturally we can’t help but fear the worst happening to them. And let those dark fears dig deep into our subconsciousnesses.

So is it any wonder that people tend to feel that the world is getting more dangerous – and why they consume this sort of media uncritically?

That’s sad, and a tendency we should all be alert to – but it also does real damage. It’s the basis for Laura Norder campaigns which tend to make problems worse – campaigns to lock more minor criminals up, thereby turning them into more major criminals (and wasting huge sums of taxpayer’s money); campaigns to reduce funding on rehabilitation programs, campaigns to help groups most likely through various circumstances to turn to crime – and the less these campaigns work, the worse the problem gets, the more their proponents say we need to adopt their solutions that don’t work.

Just remember: your parents thought the world was descending into anarchy when you were a teenager. So did theirs thirty years earlier. And those before them. Try to remember how out of touch you knew they were then.

And remember that the tabloids are selling you something. You don’t have to buy it.

UPDATE: Of course, the phenomenon is not unique to Australia – for example, here in Oregon. Martin McKee, writing in the British Medical Journal, gives some explanation as to why.

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16 comments

16 thoughts on “If the figures don’t say what we want them to say, they must be wrong

  1. We don’t like those figures! Do it again! – Pure Poison

    […] And you want the result skewed with your sensationalist and wrong claims about crime, in which when crime rates fall you just attack the people who’ve reported them. […]

  2. Upyasmum

    This is just a poorly disguised criticism to give your lenient sentencing campaign another run.

    I did a quick Google search on crime rates and the Herald Sun – the second result, after the article you mention above, was headed “Murder Rates Lowest in 20 Years”. So much for “we don’t see the reverse of the headlines we get when they increase” because, evidently, we do.

    I’m not surprised that you manipulated the thrust of the original article. It’s got nothing to do with getting tough on crime or going soft on perps, but to cover an issue of police (possibly) fudging crime figures before an election. It may come as a shock to you, but that sort of a story will get coverage in most western democracies. It would be worth mentioning if it didn’t get a run.

    I’m not sure that “And their readers lap it up uncritically” is accurate. Firstly, I doubt that the Herald Sun has a more avid reader than you, and you’ve got two websites and a podcast dedicated almost specifically to stick’n it to them. That’s reasonably critical in anyone’s language. But, regardless, to suggest that everyone but you “lap it up uncritically” is sensationalist baloney to agitate the PP faithful, who will “lap it up uncritically”.

    This bit is amazing:

    “Which photograph makes the Herald Sun? The punch up outside a nightclub, or the ordinary non-violent Saturday night of pretty much everyone else? Of course the bad gets disproportionate coverage.”

    Let me try and explain.

    You see, tabloid newspapers, like their broadsheet cousins, are commercial entities that need to turn a profit to survive. Through years of trial and error, newspaper editors have discovered that running articles and photos of nothing happening tends to make it hard to sell papers. People prefer their newspapers, news bulletins, websites, etc. to contain things of interest. You’ll further note that many people abbreviate “things of interest” down to “news”. So, when people buy “news” papers, they tend to buy the one that’s full of “things of interest”.

    You should at least try and stay clear of sensationalist claims, shonky facts, gross generalizations, poor understanding, sermonizing, etc. if you’re going to run a website that proclaims to hold media to account. But that’s not what it’s about. You’re running a propaganda site for Green/far Left politics and ideals (and stepping on the purported values of this site in the process).

    Just thought it worth pointing out.

  3. quantize

    Watch ’em beat up the recent incidents in public schools in Sydney….there will most likely be a racial angle emphasized

  4. davkel

    It’s more than this Jeremy. Not only are the decrease in crime stats attacked as ‘wrong’, the ‘fact’ that they’re wrong is a means to attack the credibility of the government of the day. So the rightards win – increase in crime means the end of the world – decrease in crime means the police and government are corrupt. So simple.

    I probably fall into the demographic of consumers of this type of reporting and nothing makes me angrier. There is no part of my city I don’t feel safe going into – nor my family and it’s awful that people are trying to make me feel that fear. The only time I’ve EVER felt fear of this kind was growing up in a small country town in the late 70’s- THAT’S A BRUTAL PLACE!

  5. Holden Back

    ‘Going for an astounding spin in a Ferrari’ will become a new figure of speech for partisan journalism.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/no-class-divide-in-schools-spending/story-fn59niix-1226015619737

  6. both kinds of politics

    […] Posted by admin, on March 4th, 2011 If the figures don’t say what we want them to say, they must be wrong […]

  7. quantize

    OLD PERSONS! be FRIGHTENED and VOTE CONSERVATIVE

  8. Puff, the Magic Dragon.

    [If newspaper proprieters, editors and reporters were flogged regularly, as they were in the days of Charles I & II, we wouldn’t have these problems.]
    Monkeywrench and JamesH might be right, except that some of the floggees might like it. You would have to, wouldn’t you, to work in roopys realm?

  9. fitter

    dont read the daily telegraph – problem solved.

  10. returnedman

    There’s a large group out there that we should start referring to as the “AA”s – the “Ask Anyones”:

    “Ask anyone from … and they’ll tell you the real story”.

    They seem to proliferate in the comments section of a certain blog.

  11. JamesH

    Monkeywrench is right. If newspaper proprieters, editors and reporters were flogged regularly, as they were in the days of Charles I & II, we wouldn’t have these problems.

  12. Daniel

    “And remember that the tabloids are selling you something. You don’t have to buy it.”

    Going by distribution numbers, an increasing number of people are refusing to buy it.

  13. monkeywrench

    I blame the abandonment of flogging.

  14. Mephistopheles

    “Police figures showed that assaults had risen by 3.7 per cent per 100,000 people.”

    The Herald Sun’s Wayne Flower should probably consider learning some primary school level mathematics regarding percentages before he attempts an article whose focus is debunking statistics.

    Comedy gold.

  15. Holden Back

    Truthiness at its best: if you don’t feel safe you’re not, and the statistics must be wrong.

  16. Catsidhe

    Plato was complaining about the collapse of society:
    [the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons, while the son likens himself to his father, and feels neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, so he may be free ; the resident alien becomes the equal of a citizen and the citizen of a resident alien, and similarly with the foreigner.

    It indeed so happens, he said.

    To these, said I, such trifles do add up: the teacher, in such a case, fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils have in low esteem their teachers as well as their overseers; and, overall, the young copy the elders and contend hotly with them in words and in deeds, while the elders, lowering themselves to the level of the young, sate themselves with pleasantries and wit, mimicking the young in order not to look unpleasant and despotic.

    Most certainly, he said.

    But indeed, said I, the ultimate, my dear, in the excess of freedom as it develops in such a city is reached when the men and women who have been purchased are no less free than those who have bought them… And regarding the relations of women with men and of men with women, how far equal rights and freedom have gone, we came close to almost saying nothing about that ! ]

    There is nothing new under the sun.