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Violent crime is up. Newsmax and OANN viewers are most likely to say so.

People are bad at judging crime trends.

People who consume right-wing media are more likely to think violent crime has increased than those who don’t, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress.

The poll, which surveyed 1,209 likely voters about their perceptions of crime and has a 3 percentage point (plus or minus) margin of error, indicates that viewers of Newsmax and OANN, two right-wing media outlets that have a loose relationship with the facts — most notably in their perpetuation of the false conspiracy theory that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election due to mass voter fraud — are more likely to say that violent crime is on the rise.

Data for Progress

Forty-three percent of OANN/Newsmax viewers believe crime has increased in their communities, while only 30 percent of those who don’t watch right-wing news agree. The effect is more pronounced at the national level, where 87 percent of OANN/Newsmax viewers think crime has increased, compared with 70 percent of those who watch neither Fox, OANN, nor Newsmax and 71 percent of those who reported watching just Fox.

In this instance, OANN/Newsmax viewers are closer to the truth when it comes to national shifts: Murder and violent crime have increased over the last year. As Vox’s German Lopez recently reported, “Based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher.”

But that may not be the full picture, Lopez noted:

The FBI analysis found violent crime was up by 3 percent nationwide, although not as uniformly as murder was. The three data sets all found some kinds of violent crime were up, including aggravated assaults and gun assaults, while others were down, including rape and robbery. Crime overall fell, largely due to drops in nonviolent offenses involving drugs, burglary, or theft (with an exception for car theft).

Criminologists often look to murder rates to tell the real story of what is going on with violent crime. Although reported rates of burglary, assault, or other crimes may fluctuate (especially with the upheaval of the last year), murder is a more reliable indicator because there is either a missing person or a body.

But rather than assuming OANN and Newsmax are better at portraying reality (considering the numerous ways they spread false information), it’s more likely this is a quintessential example of the saying that “a broken clock is right twice a day.”

Americans are pretty bad at estimating crime trends

According to the poll, people believe crime may have increased significantly nationwide and somewhat in their state, but when asked about their immediate community — for which they would feasibly have the greatest information — a minority of respondents, including OANN and Newsmax viewers, said they thought crime had increased.

Only 33 percent of likely voters agreed that violent crime has increased in their immediate communities, while 72 percent and 51 percent, respectively, agreed that crime has increased nationwide and in their state.

Gallup, whose annual crime poll asks respondents about the increase or decrease in crime in their area over the past year, found in October 2020 that 38 percent said more, 39 percent said less, and 22 percent said the same. Gallup similarly found a sharp divergence when asking respondents in the same survey about crime nationwide: In October 2020, 78 percent said there was more crime in the US as a whole compared with the previous year.

Historically, people are not very good at estimating crime trends. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of voters (57 percent) said crime had worsened since 2008, even though violent crime had fallen nearly 20 percent during that time period. “Voters are usually more likely to say crime is up than down, regardless of what official statistics show,” wrote John Gramlich, a senior writer/editor at Pew.

Since 1989 (excluding 2001), respondents to Gallup’s annual crime poll have said crime in the US increased over the year before, often sharply at odds with existing data.

Media consumption may not be causing these differential views of crime. It could just be that people who believe crime is a bigger issue are more likely to watch right-wing news. Pew’s issue polling of the 2020 presidential election showed that 74 percent of Donald Trump supporters said violent crime was “very important” to their vote, whereas only 46 percent of Biden voters said the same. But whichever direction the causal arrow flows, it’s clear that people’s perceptions of crime are often (if not this year) divorced from reality.

Pew Research Center

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