It’s been decades since Americans were this afraid of crime. In a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of voters said that they were dissatisfied with their nation’s “policies to reduce or control crime,” the highest that figure has ever been this century. In 2020, only 49 percent of voters expressed such dissatisfaction. The share of Americans who believe that crime has risen where they live, meanwhile, hit an all-time high of 58 percent in October.
Some progressives blame this climate of fear on sensationalistic media outlets and the editorial dictum, “If it bleeds it leads.” Their theory is straightforward: (1) News outlets are desperate to attract eyeballs, (2) nothing captivates the human mind quite like perceived threats to its safety, ergo (3) outlets give outsize coverage to aberrant incidents of violence, thereby promoting misapprehensions about their prevalence.
I think some on the left take this analysis too far. The sharp increase in America’s homicide rate since 2019 is not a figment of the media’s imagination. It is true that our nation’s murder rate remains lower than it was in the 1990s. But it’s also true that in 2014 — when the homicide rate hit an all-time low — Americans were still more than three times as likely as Western Europeans to get murdered.
Further, the public’s concern with crime does seem to track fluctuations in its objective prevalence. Eight years ago, when homicide rates were relatively low, voters were much less likely to name crime as a top priority than they are today, and the movement for criminal-justice reform attracted bipartisan buy-in. When the murder rate jumped by 30 percent in 2020, the politics of crime in the U.S. simultaneously shifted. Where a Republican president once touted his support for sentencing reform, a Democratic one now advertises his enthusiasm for expanding police forces.
So the public’s level of concern about crime does seem to reflect real-world conditions, at least to a degree. And yet it could nevertheless be true that the media exerts significant influence over how widespread and politically salient fear of crime becomes. After all, objective conditions cannot explain why Americans spent much of the past decade wrongly telling pollsters that crime was rising throughout the country.
And the midterm results provide fresh evidence for the media’s power to shape public perceptions about crime. In fact, there is some reason to believe that the New York City media’s outsize concern with crime might have cost Democrats the House. Specifically, there is evidence that voters who were exposed to city media outlets put a higher priority on crime than voters in areas with similar (or higher) crime rates but different news sources. This redounded to the GOP’s benefit in the Empire State, enabling the party to nearly run the table in competitive House races. Had New Yorkers voted more like their peers in neighboring Pennsylvania, Democrats might still boast full control of the federal government next year.
That voters’ discontent with crime drove New York’s right turn is uncontroversial. Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin put crime at the center of his campaign, lacerating the Democratic Party for coddling criminals, a message that was further amplified by conservative PACs. In statewide polls, voters consistently ranked crime as their top issue. In interviews with the New York Times, suburban swing voters who’d backed the GOP in 2022 attributed their newfound support for Republicans to concerns about public safety. Critically, those concerns did not derive solely from direct experience of crime or Republican ads.
Crime is a genuine problem in New York City, where the homicide rate remains about 40 percent higher than it was in 2019. On the city’s subway, major felonies rose 40 percent from October 2021 to October 2022, a period that featured an improbably bungled attempt at mass murder. Incidents of rape in the city have risen by about 11 percent over the past year. Hate crimes in New York leapt by 100 percent between 2020 and 2021, before climbing another 16 percent this year. Meanwhile, the city’s endemic shortages of housing and mental-health care condemn its most vulnerable residents to life on the streets while promoting a sense of public disorder among the broader population.
Nevertheless, the intensity of voters’ concerns about public safety cannot be explained by objective conditions alone. In a February poll from Quinnipiac University, 50 percent of New Yorkers said that crime was a “very serious” problem. In 1999, when Quinnipiac first asked that question, New York’s homicide rate was 50 percent higher than it is today, and incidents of burglary, aggravated assault, and car theft were all much more prevalent — yet only 35 percent of respondents deemed violent crime a major concern at that time. It is entirely legitimate for New Yorkers to consider crime reduction their paramount issue in 2022. But this was even more true in 1999. The electorate’s greater concern with the issue in the latter year therefore cannot be explained as an automatic byproduct of crime’s absolute prevalence.
What’s more, while criminal victimization is concentrated in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, the political backlash to crime was pronounced in relatively placid suburbs. The homicide spike did not reach into affluent enclaves of Westchester or Long Island; but the New York Post did. Several suburbanites who spoke to the Times cited the Post’s coverage when explaining their midterm vote. For more than a year, that tabloid had crusaded for both the repeal of New York’s 2019 bail-reform law (which ended cash bail for nonviolent offenders awaiting trial) and Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign. The Post has some agenda-setting power in the New York media, and its crusade may have influenced both the behavior of Republican politicians and the coverage decisions of local news stations. In any case, Republican candidates throughout New York latched onto the Post’s narrative, lacerating Democrats for putting dangerous criminals (which is to say, criminals too poor to purchase freedom) back on the streets.
Whatever the cause, the midterm results suggest that exposure to New York’s media market had a profound influence on voting behavior. New Jersey’s Third Congressional District is split between the New York City– and Philadelphia-designated media markets encompassing broadcast television and radio. In Mercer and Burlington County — both of which reside in the Philly market — incumbent Democrat Andy Kim roughly equaled or exceeded President Biden’s margin in 2020. In Monmouth County, which lies in the NYC market, however, Kim underperformed Biden by seven points.
A similar pattern is apparent in nearby districts. Will Jordan, a pollster for the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, examined the midterm results in six tristate area districts that lie partly within the New York City media market and partly outside it. He found that the GOP did between three and four points better in areas exposed to the NYC market.
This disconnect cannot be explained by criminological realities. Despite the uptick in homicides that followed the pandemic, New York’s murder rate remains less than one-fifth as high as it was in the early 1990s. By contrast, Philadelphia’s homicide rate is at an all-time high. And although New York has suffered a surge in hate crimes, which might have special resonance to Asian American voters in the Third District, Pennsylvania has also seen an increase in such offenses in recent years, including a high-profile attack on Asian American teens on the city’s transit system.
Far from being exceptionally perilous, New York City and its suburbs are among the safest places in America, especially when the risk of traffic fatalities is taken into account. As Justin Fox notes, you are much less likely to die from an external cause in New York City than you would be in a typical American small town.
Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any objective reason for New York City news outlets to be more concerned about crime than their peers in Philadelphia, nor for New Jersey residents who reside closer to NYC to be more alarmed about public safety than those who reside closer to Philly.
To be sure, factors beyond the coverage decisions of news outlets could explain the disparate voting patterns of counties exposed to the NYC media market and those that weren’t. Most obviously, New Jersey voters in the Philadelphia market saw different political ads than those in the New York one. Pennsylvania’s Senate race was the most expensive in the country with Democratic groups shelling out over $100 million on the contest. Voters in the Philly market therefore saw a lot more ads in which a Democratic Senate candidate touted his concerns about crime than did voters in the NYC market. And they also likely saw more ads about issues that are settled in deep-blue New York but not in purple Pennsylvania, such as abortion policy.
Then again, Republicans outspent Democrats in Pennsylvania. And a high percentage of the GOP’s ads portrayed Democrats in general, and Fetterman in particular, as weak on crime. So it’s hard to chalk up the media market discrepancy to paid advertisements alone.
To the extent that New York City media did in fact elevate crime as an issue more than its peers in nearby cities, that would not necessarily mean that NYC outlets are inherently more sensationalist or reactionary. New York’s media coverage might reflect the behavior of the city’s political elites as much as the latter reflects the former. After all, NYC’s Democratic mayor Eric Adams put crime at the center of his campaign last year, thereby establishing a bipartisan consensus that New York was experiencing a crisis of public safety.
The relationships between objective reality, the public’s perceptions, elite political actors’ behavior, and media coverage are complex with causal arrows running in all directions. But news outlets can exert some independent influence over the electorate’s views and priorities. There are times when that influence can be politically decisive. The 2022 midterms may have been one of them.