Back of a Black person’s head as they watch a slightly out-of-focus TV in a dark room. The reporter on the TV is an older white man with a beard.
Crime news can make us feel we are being vigilant, but it often leads to a distorted view of the community. Photo credit: gorodenkoff/iStock

For Lolita Hunter, Detroit crime is personal.

Her 16-year-old nephew was shot and killed on a summer afternoon in 2010 when an older man fired into a crowd of people. Before his death, he loved playing sports and hanging out at his uncle’s barbershop.

“You never get over that hurt when one of your loved ones is murdered,” said Hunter.

Today, she spends most afternoons at home on the east side keeping her eyes and ears on news about crime through her tablet and two TVs. 

“I don’t like it, but I watch it all the time,” she said. “I need to see what’s going on in my neighborhood so I can protect my grandkids. 

“If I know there’s crime in the area, I keep them in the house.”

Her vigil is often solitary, but it’s repeated in living rooms across Detroit and the country. At least from the early days of newspapers, the news has used the enduring human fascination with violence to capture audiences and ad revenue.

Detroiters have every reason to keep close tabs on crime. The city’s rates of violent crime are among the highest in the U.S.

But crime reporting often fails to provide information that might actually help people stay safe in the city. Decades of studies show that news outlets tend to exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime, painting an unrealistic and terrifying community portrait that can push residents to shift their political priorities or retreat from public life. 

Outlier looked at the research and talked to experts to find out what Detroiters can glean from crime news without letting it distort their view of the community.

Why is there so much crime news?

Americans consistently tell pollsters that crime rates are rising — even when they have been falling since the ’90s — in part because media coverage of violent crime is not linked to crime rates.

The abundance of crime news is fueled by an uneasy alliance between police, reporters and a public fascinated by violent crime.

Police regularly share descriptions of violent crimes with the press. Reporters know that simply writing these press releases as news stories risks misleading readers, but it is easy to do and is sure to generate interest. This kind of crime reporting is common practice today in Detroit

In-depth reporting on more violent, sensational crimes can also generate huge spikes in public engagement.

Why are people so interested in crime?

People have evolved to be alert to danger. We feel like we need to understand what pushes people to violence, in part because we want to keep ourselves safe

There are plenty of other theories, too, but whatever the reason, the popularity of crime news means it tends to dominate every popular medium, whether it’s produced by news companies or crowd-sourced.

Detroit Uncut churns out crime headlines for 143,000 followers on Instagram (and more on TikTok). That’s more people than the Detroit Free Press’ Sunday circulation as of last fall. The account, which largely repurposes headlines from traditional news outlets, is anonymous and didn’t return a request for comment.

News segments about violent crime — especially those that promise footage of the incident itself — are by far the most popular content on metro Detroit TV stations’ YouTube pages, where they have amassed tens of millions of views. Across the country, true crime is the most common topic for podcasts.

“People say all the time, ‘You need to cover more positive stories,’” said George Hunter (no relation to Lolita Hunter), crime reporter for the Detroit News. “So I wrote one of the most positive stories you’ll ever see, ended it with a little boy getting ice cream, and no one read it.”

“The contradiction with crime reporting is that the quote-unquote ‘best stories’ are the worst thing that ever happened to someone. That’s the stuff that people want to read.”

What are the actual risks of crime in Detroit?

There is no doubt that crime has deeply marked many Detroiters’ lives.

The city’s rate of violent crime in 2020 was more than 2,200 per 100,000 people, the second highest rate in the nation that year. 

In a 2021 survey, 28% of residents told researchers that they’d been the victim of a crime in the past year.

Detroit’s murder rate was 50 per 100,000 people last year, again one of the highest rates in the nation. Oakland County, Detroit’s wealthy neighbor, had a rate of 4.2 homicides per 100,000 people.

The effects of violent crime impact some more than others, even within Detroit. About three quarters of murder victims in the city are male and 89% are Black, according to Detroit Police Department statistics provided to the FBI. More than half are between the ages of 20 and 39.

Researchers generally find that violent crime statistics are driven by specific neighborhoods. In 2015, about a quarter of gun homicides in the U.S. took place in neighborhoods containing 1.5% of the population.

Compounded over decades, these statistics mean that long-time residents are especially likely to have been affected personally by crime and to be vigilant about their personal safety. Crime is one of Detroiters’ top policy concerns, on par with affordable housing and healthcare.

How does crime news impact Detroiters?

Even in a city with a high crime rate, a constant barrage of violent crime headlines can leave residents with an unrealistic view of the city.

An increased fear of crime is linked to poor mental and physical health, withdrawing from community activities and simply staying inside.

“People absorb crime content, whether it’s through news articles, “Dateline” or whatever, and we’re getting an unrealistic view on how often these crimes happen to people,” said Amanda Vicary, a crime psychology expert and psychology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University. “So we turn to more crime content to try to learn how to keep it from happening to us, which exposes us to another crime that occurred, which may increase our anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.”

It is possible for reporting about crime to help promote safety. Reporters can provide a platform for crime victims to share their stories and seek closure. Crime news can lead to arrests. One study of the cable news company Sinclair found that a reduction in coverage of crime led to fewer arrests for violent crimes.

What information would actually keep people safe?

Crime is hyperlocal, driven by relationships and living conditions within a block or even within a household.

That’s the sort of information that could help Detroiters navigate their city — or, in Lolita Hunter’s case, to decide when and where to let the kids play outdoors.

Most often, though, crime reporting tends not to focus on very local trends. 

“Last year, there was a nonfatal shooting four houses down from me,” said Lolita Hunter. “And it wasn’t put on the news.” 

She says she first found out about the shooting using a police scanner app on her phone (a source that can be unreliable).

Lolita Hunter wishes reporters spent more time in neighborhoods to help residents get a better sense of their safety. Detroit is a large city, and consistently reporting with a hyperlocal focus would take a lot of journalistic resources, a challenge that gets tougher with every round of job cuts in local newsrooms.

Block clubs or online neighborhood groups are good sources of information about what’s happening in your area.

Hunter says she’ll continue to turn to local news outlets for information about local crime, even though she knows it doesn’t often meet her needs.

“I’m watching the news now,” she said during a phone call this week. “And what are they talking about? A shooting in Inkster.”

Inkster, a Detroit suburb, is about 20 miles from her house on the east side.

Koby (he/him) believes that love drives people to fight for their communities, and that curiosity is food for love. He enjoys the many moods of the Detroit River.