When the Press Perceives a Crime Trend, Turn On Your B.S. Detector

From the mass-shootings panic to the "knockout" panic


In his 1999 book Random Violence, which I recommend highly, the sociologist Joel Best points out that "criminologists usually doubt claims about crime waves. Crime waves, they say, are really waves in media attention: they occur because the media, for whatever reason, fix upon some sort of crime, and publicize it." Genuine spikes in crime do occur, of course, but the press has a habit of spotting patterns that aren't there.

I recycled that last paragraph from a blog post I wrote in January. Back then the alleged crime wave involved mass shootings. Now the press is focused on "knockout," which my colleague Jacob Sullum wrote about here yesterday. This time the alleged crime wave does not involve guns and is being blamed on black people, so the skeptics tend to be on the left and the hysterics tend to be on the right. (I like to think of Reason as a place where we're skeptical about all the bullshit crime-trend stories.) But the statistical support for the idea that there has been a surge in random attacks on bystanders, whether or not those assaults are a "game," is absent. The only thing that is spiking for sure is media attention, and that has less to do with the number of crimes than the presence of a storyline that the press can plug those crimes into.

Fun fact: In 1989, many reporters became convinced that there was a crime trend called "wilding," which (naturally) involved random assaults on strangers. This was a byproduct of the Central Park jogger case: A police officer apparently misheard a reference to the Tone Loc song "Wild Thing" as "wilding" and the media ran with it, without bothering to say to themselves, "You know, 'wilding' is kind of a dorky word. Are a bunch of hardened thugs really going to use it?"

Addendum: Down in the comments, GILMORE argues that I should have turned on my own B.S. detector before repeating that story about the origins of the word "wilding." I'd link directly but the threads are kind of tangled; search for his handle and you'll find it.

Addendum #2: With this clip, GILMORE convinces me to ditch the Tone Loc story. Wherever the police picked up the phrase, it probably wasn't a garbled fragment of a song.