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August 25, 2005

True Crime Stores

Is it possible that I'm taking time out of a busy day to praise, of all things, today's USAToday cover story on child sex offense trends? 

Ok, this is sort of off topic for this blog.  But I think the USAToday story raises a crucial point -- that, despite the increasing level of media attention that gets paid to a few high-profile child sex offense cases, the actual trends are going quite dramatically in the right direction. According to the article, child sexual assault rates fell by 79% from 1993 through 2003.  (This may be cherry-picking the years, but the long-term trends seem perfectly legit, and agree with other crime trends.)

Of course, you wouldn't be able to tell discern this trend from most of the media coverage on the topic -- including from USAToday itself.  If you just watched the headlines, you might be convinced that sex offenses against children were soaring.   So in some ways, this story represents a rare admission from the press that you really can't gauge what's really happening in the world based on trends in media coverage.  In the end, actual data is far more important than a string of anecdotes, no matter how compelling they may be.

Now, obviously, the fact that sex offenses are on the decline overall doesn't take away from the horror experienced by victims and their families, and doesn't mean we should slacken our efforts to stop this sort of crime from happening.  And the media attention on a few high profile child sex offender cases may actually have been helpful in raising public awareness, and political action, around the issue.

But still, I think the story is a useful admission that newspaper headlines can mislead just as much as they can illuminate.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Not that I ever really watch a lot of local television news, but it seems like every time I turn on the local Seattle news that the story is about a child sex offense or the housing of sex offenders. Since moving to Seattle over 6 years ago, I've always had the suspicion that these news stories were misrepresentative of the overall trend and your post confirms my suspicion. It also reinforces my distaste for local TV news.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 29, 2005 11:04:29 AM

As a mom I think the focus on the child abductions or sex crimes is extremely frustrating. Moms tend to be protective of their children and will spend their time protecting them from what they see as the most pressing dangers. Realistically our environment contains far more serious dangers than stranger abduction but you'd never know that from watching the news. Sad.

Posted by: Rachel | Aug 29, 2005 3:55:37 PM

What this story really illustrates is the limitation of commercial, free-market media. Sex offender stories sell, so it doesn't matter what the contextual reality of sexual offences are.

This is why you will find crime reporting has increased dramatically since the 1970's at the same time as the violent crime rate has actually gone down.

If commercial media were reporting based on what is important to our lives (and our survival) then sustainability would be front page news all the time (Jennifer Aniston might appear after the classifieds).

As we struggle to grapple with the challenge that sustainable living confronts us with, one of the areas that requires effort is the nurturance of media that is democratic, and about more than selling audience to advertisers.

Posted by: Gordon | Sep 6, 2005 2:48:50 PM