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Yikes! What the heck are we so afraid of?


Crime is down just about everywhere. Fear is on the rise. News at 11

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - 'All I know is my house got broken into, and every week one of my neighbors tells me about a property crime,' says Kerns neighborhood resident Jay Harris (top) to explain what he knows is an irrational fear of crime. Jay Harris is an intelligent man, not given to snap judgments or irrational beliefs. There’s a Ph.D. in his closet and a lifetime of teaching in his past. And yet, when it comes to his sense of personal safety, Harris willingly confesses that how he feels makes no sense.

Harris says he feels less safe, more vulnerable to crime, than he did 20 years ago — even though he knows statistically he’s safer. He has lived in the Northeast Portland Kerns neighborhood since 1981.

He’s not alone.

“People are basically afraid,” says Portland State University criminologist Kris Henning, who has been studying people’s attitudes toward crime. “Most people believe (crime) has gone up, that we’re at epidemic levels,” he adds.

What Henning knows is that crime in Portland is at a historically low level. Violent crime is about half what it was 25 years ago. In Henning’s view, it’s important to figure out why there’s such a disconnect between reality and peoples’ perceptions, because often the perception affects reality.

People who feel unsafe develop a more negative attitude toward police, according to Henning, and are less likely to assist police in fighting crime in their neighborhoods. People who feel unsafe, Henning says, don’t visit downtown or they venture out from their homes less frequently, which hurts the Portland economy and makes everyone less safe because street activity is a crime deterrent.

Jay Harris and his wife haven’t stopped leaving the house. But a year ago, the two of them went out for a short walk and when they returned they found their back door had been crowbarred. A burglar had stolen musical instruments (Harris is a musician and music teacher) and a DVD player. That has certainly affected Harris’ sense of personal safety.

Harris has attended a number of neighborhood association meetings where a police officer presented updated statistics showing crime is down where he lives. That registers with part of his brain, he says. But the other part?

“All I know is my house got broken into, and every week one of my neighbors tells me about a property crime,” he says. And that knowledge seemingly overpowers the statistics presented at his neighborhood association meeting.

Harris credits one other bit of societal input with skewing his view of reality. Sometimes he watches the television news. “If you turn on Fox 12 any given night it’s like a cliche,” he says. “There will be one story about the cute cat on a turntable and nine stories about bad things. Intelligence be darned. I’m just a regular human being. ... Oh my goodness, it’s disturbing.”

Bingo, says PSU’s Henning, who spearheaded a study two years ago titled “Exposure to Local News Media and Perceived Safety in Portland, Oregon.” The study, Henning says, proves what a number of other researchers around the country have discovered — that people who watch TV news feel less safe in their neighborhoods and downtown than people who don’t watch TV news. Conversely, newspaper readers, in a survey conducted as part of Henning’s study, did not report heightened fear of crime.

Henning had his students analyze local newscasts and found that one out of three TV news stories are about crime and “disproportionately violent.” Just as critical, he says, is the lack of context for those stories. A murder story doesn’t mention the fact, Henning says, that Portland had a record low (15) homicides last year. A story about rape doesn’t mention that more than eight in 10 Portland rapes involve victims who are extremely vulnerable, most either homeless or suffering from severe mental illness, which makes them easy prey. In fact, Henning says, the media rarely run stories about rapes of homeless women.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - 'I went through this whole dialogue with myself. I could put myself in their shoes,  imagining myself lying in bed waking up, finding an intruder in my house,' Richmond neighborhood resident Sara Wright (here with daughters Sophie McEwen and Matilda), explaining her reaction to a news story about a home invasion.

No one’s listening to facts

“Criminologists are screaming at the top of our lungs that we’ve been experiencing a crime drop, but we get out-screamed by so many other outlets, and a lot of it is TV news,” says Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of “Breaking News: How Local TV News and Real-World Conditions Affect Fear of Crime.”

In surveys of Washington, D.C., residents Kubrin found that people believe they are more likely to be victims of violent crime than property crime, which is not true. She also found that blacks tend to feel less safe and watch more TV news than whites. When she controlled for all the other factors that are associated with a greater fear of crime — living in bad neighborhoods, race, lower income, less education and having been victims of crime — she still found that people who rely on TV news as their primary news source become more fearful of crime. And she found that people believe what they see on local TV news more than on the national news.

Which is why her dealings with TV news reporters make Kubrin so unsettled. She recalls a reporter who contacted her, wanting to put together a story on the impact of the recession on middle-class families. The reporter hoped Kubrin could turn her on to middle-class people who had turned to crime in order to get by.

Kubrin told the reporter that she didn’t think many middle-class families were turning to crime. The reporter insisted there had to be some and she’d find them. Crime stories attract viewers, Kubrin says, but the reporter was missing the point.

“The more interesting story is why aren’t more middle-class people going out and committing crimes,” she says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - 'I didn't feel unsafe before, and I don't feel unsafe now,' David Newman, downtown resident who helped organize Friends of the South Park Blocks.

More security, more uneasiness?

David Newman, who lives in an apartment above the downtown Safeway, can relate to that. Newman co-organized Friends of South Park Blocks a few years ago. He was bothered by what he saw in his neighborhood — neglected maintenance, littering, vandalism and drug dealing. But he wasn’t, and isn’t, especially worried about being a victim of crime.

“I feel about the same level of safety,” Newman says of his seven years living downtown. “I didn’t feel unsafe before, and I don’t feel unsafe now.”

Newman says he doesn’t know anybody who has been a victim of crime. But he has a theory — beyond TV watching — about what might be fueling a sense of vulnerability among his neighbors. He says in his area many businesses and the Portland Art Museum have contracted with private security to make up for the lack of police patrols. He wonders if rather than making people feel more safe, the presence of private security has the opposite effect.

“There may be an idea that, since the city is ignoring the area, there might be things that do go on,” he says. “It gives a perception that if there was something happening, the police would kind of ignore it.”

Two fundamental imperatives drive the irrational fear of crime, says University of Oregon psychologist Azim Shariff, who studies how TV watching affects peoples’ world views. The first is what academics call the availability heuristic, which basically means that when things come to mind more easily, we start to believe they happen more frequently. Car accidents are much more common and kill many more people than plane crashes, Shariff explains, but people are more terrified of plane crashes because when they fly they recall sensational stories about plane crashes.

“Do you remember the details of the last car accident story you’ve heard?” Shariff asks. “But you do on a plane accident.”

All this is heightened, Shariff says, by the explosion of news available via the web and social media. “Right now we see more media and, as a result, we’re going to think that everything that happens is more frequent than it actually is.”

Shariff’s other concept is called the positive/negative asymmetry bias. “That’s just a fancy way of saying bad is stronger than good,” he says.

This part of our nature, according to Shariff, comes courtesy of natural selection. We are hard-wired, he says, to overreact to danger, such as the possibility of crime in our neighborhood. Think about our cavemen and women ancestors huddled around a campfire. Their potential for survival increased if they overreacted to a sound in the dark that just might be coming from a wolf.

Shariff is a fan of Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, whose book, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” examines the arc of human history and makes the case that there is proportionally less violence in the world today than there ever has been, as well as less poverty, less hunger, and fewer wars.

“I think we’d all like to believe there’s less crime and violence and less hunger,” Shariff says. “We’re tuned not to believe that. We’re tuned to be sensitive to threat, to be sensitive to the bad. Combined with the media effect, it means that’s what’s going to be on our minds.”

Irrationality takes hold

Crime isn’t much on Sara Wright’s mind. The resident of Southeast Portland’s Richmond neighborhood is aware of the decrease in crime and feels very safe in her neighborhood. And yet she’s had two experiences, one personal and one media-related, that have thrown her sense of security off kilter more than a bit.

A few years ago Wright was bicycling to work in Oakland, Calif., when a group of kids ran up to her and knocked her off her bike. Wright suffered no long-lasting injuries, but says, “My sense of order of the world was definitely violated.”

In Portland the last seven years, now with a husband and two children, she has had no experiences with crime. Once she was walking on Southeast Foster Road near her home when she came across the body of a man who had been stabbed to death in a nearby apartment complex. That incident had little impact on her sense of personal safety, Wright says.

But reading about a schizophrenic man invading a Northeast Portland family’s home in the middle of the night and fracturing the skull of a 6-year-old girl with a frying pan nearly three years ago had an outsized impact, according to Wright. Why?

“Because it was so exceptional,” Wright says. “It was weird, and it was a family, and the daughter was the same age as my daughter. It was very relatable to me. I could easily imagine my family in that situation.”

The event, which she knew only through news reports, and which Wright understood was a very rare type of crime, would not let go of her consciousness.

“I went through this whole dialogue with myself,” she says. “I could put myself in their shoes, imagining myself lying in bed waking up, finding an intruder in my house. I could imagine how that would feel.”

Wright says she doesn’t watch the TV news, but she understands now how the brain can latch on to a bad story to an irrational extent.

“When it feels very personal and relatable, even though the odds are small, if the consequences are terrible your sense of proportion gets all skewed,” she says.

Crime fear stats

Portland murders declined by 49 percent from 1995 to 2010.

Portland aggravated assaults declined 70 percent from 1995 to 2010.

Portland robberies declined 56 percent from 1995 to 2010.

52% of Oregonians believe Oregon crime is increasing.

10% of Oregonians believe Oregon crime is decreasing.

25% of Oregonians believe local crime is increasing.

12% of Oregonians believe local crime is decreasing.

Two out of three Americans think crime overall is getting worse.

Data from: PSU Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute, 2011 Gallup poll

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - PSU ciminologist Kris Henning says TV news conveys an outsized picture of crime in Portland.

Media crime reports may not tell the whole story

Crime is about half what it was 25 years ago, but crime stories are just as big a part of daily media coverage, says Portland State University criminologist Kris Henning. Henning thinks the police could take measures to counteract the out-of-context reporting.

Most media outlets rely on police Infoflash alerts to learn about the day-to-day crime they cover. At the bottom of many police news releases there are a couple paragraphs telling reporters how rare that particular crime might be, or advising residents on how to prevent crime in their neighborhoods. Those paragraphs rarely make it into news stories, Henning says, even though the media often report the rest of the news releases verbatim.

The media's appetite for crime stories is insatiable, Henning says, but the police have discretion on what they feed it. He posits that maybe the police should use more discretion in deciding what crime stories get publicized. “Crime the media want to know about is not necessarily the same as important crimes,” he says.

If a media outlet requests information about a crime, Portland police are required to provide it, says police spokesman Pete Simpson. Even with no media request, however, if there is reason to believe a crime raises public safety concerns, the release goes out, according to Simpson.

Last year a rash of tire punctures was the type of crime Simpson says he normally would not have released without a media request. But, eventually, so many tire punctures took place it became a topic of conversation in various neighborhoods, so the news release went out.

Simpson says Portland police are constantly trying to build their social media presence to combat the mainstream media's effect. Since beginning the effort in 2011, the police bureau has attracted 25,700 Twitter and 11,000 Facebook followers who get crime and police information with the context the bureau thinks appropriate.

Simpson's bottom line? “If you want to feel safe, don’t watch the news.”