The media crime narrative

This article was first published on 1/200’s site at this link.

A recent Reid Research poll found that when asked “Is the current Police Minister too soft on crime”, 68% of respondents said yes. Leaving aside the manufactured nature of this result, it comes as no surprise. After all, we are apparently in the middle of a nigh-unprecedented crime wave – if the media are to be believed – and Police Minister Poto Williams is “not cracking down on crime“. Except that we aren’t, and she is. So where did this poll result come from?

One primary driver is a clear, persistent and self-sustaining media narrative that “crime” is “out of control”. We have been inundated lately with stories about guns, gangs, drug seizures, murders, violent robberies, and the current flavours of the month: youth crime and ram raids. Scarcely a week goes by where there aren’t multiple sensational headlines making claims about some kind of crime wave.

The number of these stories contrasts sharply with the actual magnitude of the crime, compared to things that aren’t dominating headlines. For example the most recent available estimate from the Serious Fraud Office put the value of economic and financial crime at $180 million per week, more than 450 times the estimated cost of recent ram raids. IRD’s very limited investigations alone turned up $854 million in what they call “tax position differences” last year, though it generated no headlines.

The media themselves are largely responsible for the disproportionate volume of these stories. They are the exact kind of emotive, outrage-inducing headlines that make for great clickbait. In a media landscape of declining ad revenue and web traffic mostly dictated by engagement-driven social media algorithms, the media’s profit incentive creates some particularly perverse outcomes.

In particular it makes the media very willing accomplices to the ends of political, business, police and other interest groups. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are cashing in on this. Labour’s Helen White recently penned an op-ed about a “downward spiral into crime” in Central Auckland. Auckland Mayoral hopefuls Leo Molloy and Viv Beck were quoted authoritatively on the need for a greater police presence in Central Auckland. These politicians are speaking, at least in part, to garner support from the local business community, who last year requested increased police patrols in an open letter to the Prime Minister. This is despite police representatives themselves saying that specialist support services are needed, and that many of the callouts they attend are not criminal.

At the same time the National and ACT parties flood the police minister with questions in parliament about the minutiae of gang, gun and crime statistics, trumpeting any increases in certain types of crime as indicators of a generalised crisis and ignoring any overall trends. In parliament, in select committees, on social media and when providing (often unchallenged and uncritically repeated) comments to the media, they overstate and hyperbolise. This further drives the narrative of a crisis, in this case with the aim of undermining the government, building political capital and positioning themselves as tough-on-crime, law-and-order parties. This same tactic was used by the Labour party in 1996, when they also helped to stoke a moral panic over gangs.

Meanwhile the police themselves are working to drive crime narratives to further their own goals. The Police Association’s Chris Cahill is regularly quoted catastrophising about a supposed crisis of firearms and firearm violence. He cites this supposed firearms crisis, as well as concerns for police safety, as reasons for the general arming of police, something that the leader of the National Party supports. (N.B.: the police’s own research estimates that general arming would have seen an additional 92 people shot and 43 people killed by police over the last ten years, while their review of all critical incidents since 2015 failed to identify a single event in which access to a firearm would’ve saved the life of an officer or a member of the public). 

This is not surprising: the Police Association’s role is to represent and advocate for police, which involves raising the status of policing, improving public perceptions of police and advocating for additional police funding. All of these goals are well served by the kind of knee-jerk reactions that come from a moral panic about crime.

What results from all of this is a narrative around crime that is very real in the public imagination and media ecosystem, but quite disconnected from the actual situation in Aotearoa. One often has to read quite far down any of the multitudes of articles to find contextualising information, actual statistics or contrary voices, if these are present at all.

It would probably surprise many people to learn that rates of almost all kinds of crime have been decreasing steadily for years. For example, the byline in one Newshub article, “youth crime spirals out of control“, could not be further from the truth: youth crime rates are now less than half what they were 15 years ago

Similarly, a NZ Herald article recently ran with the headline “Nearly 100 Kiwis have been shot dead in just four years amid an explosion in gang warfare and firearms violence across our communities“, which failed to mention that most of these murders were the actions of a white supremacist. The article also failed to connect any of the other murders to gangs. In reality, most kinds of violent crime, including homicides and the worst kinds of violent firearm crime, are also declining.

Another regular feature of many articles is the idea that police are at significant danger in their work, with one recent article claiming that some police are now wearing”ballistic body armour” as they go about their daily duties. In fact, policing doesn’t register on the Stats NZ list of dangerous jobs, which actually shows there are unacceptably high risks to workers in critical professions like cleaning and rubbish collection. Meanwhile the annual number of police events in which officers perceived their own or others’ lives to be in danger has varied but remained stable between 2012 and 2021. Yet again, the media narrative does not align with facts. 

For accuracy, there are some categories or types of offences that have increased recently, some by a lot. Violence offences involving intimidation and threats, including those with firearms, have nearly doubled in the last few years. Family violence has increased over the last two decades. Assaults have increased above the expected levels of variation in the last couple of years, though only in some areas, and this isn’t a crisis of random public assaults that the framing of the article would have you believe.

Police are also reporting significantly more firearms offences. While this may be true, it is not the case that we are suddenly “awash with guns” as the article claims. Some of the increase in firearms offences is a direct result of the government making a large number of firearms illegal in 2019, along with a significant shift in police enforcement towards illegal firearms that followed.

Firearm statistics are actually further complicated by the fact that, also in 2019, the police centralised and standardised data collection about firearms, requiring officers to log all firearms encountered in the course of their duties where previously only some districts did this, and inconsistently. This is likely behind some of the apparent increase in reports of firearms encountered by police, and unfortunately means that data prior to 2019 is difficult to use for comparison or to identify longer term trends. 

However, despite the current narrative around crime having a demonstrably tenuous basis in reality, its effects are very real. Populist calls from politicians for more police on the street and other “tough-on-crime” approaches end up drowning out the voices of experts and people working on the front lines, preventing effective action being taken to address some of the very real harm happening every day.

The $600m package announced by the government is emblematic of this. It throws money at a criminal justice system that only perpetuates harm. It’s not hard to think how this money could be better spent: housing, health and addiction services, or community specialists trained to deal with specific types of harm are just a few ideas. Many community service providers are stretched and crying out for funding or support from central government. 

At the same time the government has quietly rolled out its plan for combating family violence. With its focus on prevention and building capacity for community-based responses to violence, this is an excellent blueprint for action on social harms. Unfortunately though, instead of following this model for the kind of harm currently capturing headlines, public pressure has resulted in reactionary policy. 

Almost a quarter of the $600 million package is going into providing police with tactical training and faster access to guns. This is less than a month after police shot and killed an unarmed Māori man named Kaoss Price. It follows reports that the number of people killed each year by police in Aotearoa has tripled over the last decade and is now 11 times higher than in the UK and Wales

Meanwhile, news media continue to ignore, or bury deep in articles, any commentary on the actual drivers of social harm. Opting to run reductive, racialised stories, they fail to examine crime any more deeply than it takes to use the word “gangs” in the headline. Within the public imagination too, gangs become a scapegoat that allow people to ignore our collective responsibility to address deeper issues like racism, inequality, poverty, alienation of labour, drug harm, or the fact that people are struggling to access basic needs like housing, healthcare, food or education.

The end result is that, rather than treating crime and social harm as processes connected to wider social systems and structures, there is a pathologisation of crime as something that simply needs to be excised from certain individuals or communities. This is used to justify over-policing of certain, mostly Māori communities. It ends with more Māori forced through a criminal justice system where they face disproportionately harsh treatment at every step.

This is the reality of the current discourse in the media. “Tough on crime” approaches ruin lives. They disproportionately target marginalised groups with violence, applying criminal penalties that harm people’s relationships, standing in their community, employment opportunities, and having flow-on effects to their physical and mental health. They do not prevent crime or rehabilitate people, and do nothing to actually address the harm that someone may have caused. 

We desperately need to do better, and we could start on this particular issue by holding politicians, police and media outlets accountable for the rhetoric that they spout. More broadly we need to question not only the facts of the narrative but the ideological edifice that it springs from. Until then, ending the cycles of harm and violence that are perpetuated daily remains out of reach.