Statistics show that violent crime rates have been dropping over the past decade in Germany, but fear of crime is rising. Experts say the media plays a large role in this disconnect between reality and perception.
False perceptions about crime have people demanding more jails
The numbers are encouraging. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of murders fell by 40.8 percent and domestic burglaries fell by 45.7 percent. All in all, crime in general dropped by 2.6 percent during the 10-year period and today, Germany is considered one of the industrialized world's safer countries.
But among the German populace, the mental picture of the nation's crime rate is markedly different. In a survey conducted in 2004 by the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN), a representative sample of 2,000 people were asked about their perceptions of crime trends in the previous 10 years. In almost all categories of crime, respondents grossly overestimated crime rates in Germany.
While car theft rates actually shrank by 70.5 percent, people surveyed estimated they had increased by 47 percent. When it came to serious crimes such as murder, the discrepancies grew. The average estimate was that the murder rate had gone up 27 percent, when in fact it had fallen by 40.8 percent. Sexual murders dropped by 37.5 percent between 1993 and 2003, but the public estimated that they had increased by a full 260 percent.
"The public perception is very different from what we see from the police statistics," said Matthias Kleimann, a researcher at KFN who helped author a study of crime perception versus reality, of which the survey was a part.
Such trends have been seen in other western countries as well. In the UK, a survey in 2003 showed 38 percent of Britons thought crime rates had gone up strongly in the previous two years, while only four percent thought they had decreased over that time. In fact, crime rates there had fallen by around two percent.
In the United States, the story is similar. While crime has fallen fairly consistently since 1991, the perception is the opposite, as evidenced by the multiplication of gated communities across the nation and the booming business done by one growth industry, home security.
What's to blame?
While the jury is still out on the exact reasons for this disconnect between the real and perceived crime story, experts from several countries where the phenomenon can be seen are pointing their fingers at the media and the style, and amount, of its crime reporting.
“Look at what kind of news pieces make it into a newscast, the negative stories. The newsroom theory is most definitely 'bad news is good news'," said Kleimann.
Crime for many media outlets, particularly television, is very good news since it is often inexpensive to cover and, at the same time, a big draw for viewers.
"You have to look at the way a lot of TV presents crime stories. They are at the same time highly emotional and affect people directly," he said. "When a child disappears, it interests everyone and it often leads the newscast."
He points out that the trend has been noticeable since the mid 1980s, when commercial television networks first became fixtures on the German media landscape. Unlike their public rivals, the commercial networks have ratings to worry about. Like their American counterparts, they have adopted the "if it bleeds, it leads" news philosophy at the expense of drier stories on topics like unemployment or government.
The result is a sensational smorgasbord of harrowing crime stories that has skewed the perception of the average viewer.
One study showed that in the US, there was a slight decrease in the number of serious crimes over the period 1991 to 1995. An analysis of the evening news broadcast by all major television stations, on the other hand, showed the number of televised reports of spectacular violent crimes increased fourfold.
While those perceptions and heightened fear may have little to do with the world outside the TV, they do have an effect on society, particularly the justice system.
"During the last decade, attitudes towards punishment in different western European countries have become significantly harsher," according to Helmut Kury of the Max Planck Institute of Criminal and International Law. He said that can be traced to the perception of "increasing crime" in general, and the public's desire that "something be done" about a problem that people fear is skyrocketing.
In fact, experts say that the false perception of crime is the phenomenon that is more likely to quickly spiral out of control.
Often added to the mix are politicians who look to exploit those fears for their own gain by taking tough-on-crime stances, winning votes by promising to build more prisons and pass tougher sentencing laws.
According to the researchers at KFN, that will do little to help cut an already fairly low crime rate in Germany and threatens to draw resources away from youth and educational centers that criminologists say are more effective preventive measures against future criminality.
"In the US there has been a great increase in tougher sentencing laws and a huge increase in the numbers of prisons built," said KFN's Kleimann. "In Germany, my fear is that we’re beginning to go down that road as well."