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Crime and meanness: We know whose fault it is!

Friday, March 25, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

There’s been a lot of finger pointing among political factions regarding the blame for the negative tone of political discourse. Democrats say it’s the Republicans. Republicans say it’s the Democrats. And the Tea Party says it’s the status quo (which likely means everyone but them!). Good thing we have researchers to resolve the issue. Turns out it really is everyone’s fault. What a surprise.

Researchers from Tufts examined the level of incivility in discourse from both the left and the right in the political arena. Essentially, what these researchers did was to examine “outrage talk”:

“The term “outrage talk” refers to a form of political discourse involving efforts to provoke visceral responses, such as anger, righteousness, fear or moral indignation, through the use of overgeneralizations, sensationalism, misleading or patently inaccurate information, ad hominem attacks and partial truths about opponents.

They looked at a 10-week period during the Spring of 2009 and examined evening cable TV, national radio talk shows, ideological political blogs and mainstream newspaper columns for 13 variables, such as insulting language, name calling and misrepresentative exaggeration.”

What they found is disturbing. “Outrage talk” is hardly rare. It is the norm. Overwhelmingly the norm. 89.6% of the cases sampled reflected at least one outrage incident. But if we look at certain arenas, it gets even worse. Television (100%), radio talk shows (98.8%) are leading instigators while blog posts fall behind (82.8%). So they knew (and now we know) that “outrage talk” is common. But who does it most?

“Our data indicate that the right uses decidedly more outrage speech than the left. Taken as a whole, liberal content is quite nasty in character, following the outrage model of emotional, dramatic and judgment-laden speech. Conservatives, however, are even nastier.”

The researchers go on to say that even though liberals and conservatives don’t talk this way equally—they do it remarkably similarly. And newspapers are not immune to this phenomenon. When comparing newspaper columnists from 1955 (the civil rights movement) and 1975 (Vietnam protests and Watergate) to now—they found “outrage talk” was virtually absent from newspaper columns. Not any longer. Newspaper columns were found to contain almost 6 instances (5.76%) of “outrage talk” per column. It’s a sad reflection of current realities, political polarization and the rush for ratings and circulation.

It’s hard to say if the ‘mean’ debates and corresponding media coverage are really making us more fearful but there is also research that would seem to support that notion. Crime rates have actually declined in the past twenty years but it would be hard to know that from media coverage. We are more afraid with less reason to be afraid.

“One possible reason fear of crime remains high is that powerful people have an incentive to ring the alarms anyway. Politicians score points by promising to get “tough on crime,” even after those efforts pay off and crime levels hit historic lows. Media play up only the most horrifying deeds. The result is a skewed perception of how dangerous the world is. It’s telling, though, that most people believe the danger is not on their doorstep, but beyond it. Fewer people say crime is up when asked about their area than when asked about the whole country.

Another reason for the perception gap is the constant sense that things are getting worse. Only during one short period in the last 20 years have Americans thought there was less crime than in the past. That was in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001. “People were so positive about America that I think the enemy was perceived to be much more outside the country than inside the country,” a Gallup pollster told the Boston Globe.

Keep in mind, too, that perceptions of crime lag behind crime itself. Crime went down for several years starting in 1991, but fear remained high. “That was the nastiest and most fearful period in history,” says Zimring. Congress passed a federal “truth in sentencing” law in 1994. About half of the states passed “three strikes” laws to punish habitual offenders. All this, even though crime was already on the decline.


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