Two of the most common ways that the news describes upward fluctuations in police-reported crimes are the “wave” and the “surge.”
In this post, I try to examine why the use of these metaphors has bad consequences. This is the third and final post in my series about how supposedly objective news reporting employs subtle—and almost always gratuitous—descriptions for actions, events, and trends that shape our thinking. Taken together, these casual and largely unnecessary descriptions are political, and they reinforce the politics of the status quo. The previous two posts were Powerful People Tell Us Things and How To Smuggle Ideology Into the News.
Background on the concept of “crime”
Let me preface this post by acknowledging, as I explain in more detail in Why Crime Isn’t the Question and Police Aren’t the Answer, that the entire project of measuring and reporting “crime” is not objective. Police-reported “crime” statistics are a sophisticated, deliberate, and politicized attempt to focus public attention on only certain kinds of harms committed by certain kinds of people.Police and news editors alike know very well that urgent public attention is finite.
Far greater harms—many of which are also caused by the illegal actions of wealthy or powerful groups—are obscured by narrowing our culture’s concept of which harms are relevant to our daily safety and well-being. It is how we get repeated media panic over shoplifting but not widespread panic over the far larger problem of wage theft. It is how a media culture focuses on trespassing by homeless people in the subway instead of on (often illegal) evictions by landlords. It is how the news foments authoritarian panic over variations in shooting deaths but does not create existential, daily panic about hundreds of thousands of water and air pollution crimes that kill more than 5 times as many people. Serious people should be concerned about all forms of harm, violence, and death, and the corporate news media’s current coverage of “crime” is making our society less safe by distorting our priorities for urgent action.
I start with that preface because context is important. When the daily news media reports on a “crime wave” or a “surge in shoplifting” nearly every time the numbers from the police department fluctuate upward (note that no similar metaphors are used for decreases), they are almost always using these terms to describe the collective behavior of poor people and other marginalized groups. Things rich people do don’t often get this same metaphoric treatment in daily news. How many times do you see a major news story on a “surge” in tax evasion (a problem over 60 times the magnitude of other reported property crimes) or a “wave of crime” by oil companies?
What are some examples?
Here are a few representative examples of how this plays out in standard news media:
New York Times: San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Twin Cities area sees surge in carjackings, putting drivers on edge
Newsweek: Biden Rejects Defund the Police to Cheers From Democrats Facing Crime Wave
CNN: New York City crime wave continues into 2022 as city rolls out safety plan
Often, news outlets use both metaphors in the same story. For example, here are the headline and first sentence from a recent NBC New York article: Surge in NYC Subway Crime Sets City on Edge: Breaking Down the Numbers
What does it mean?
The terms crime “wave” and “surge” are both metaphors that have something in common: they convey powerful, uncontrollable natural phenomena. The “wave” invokes a force of oceanic proportions, capable of washing away all that comes in its path. The “surge” invokes the imagery of a sudden burst of electric current that fries everything it touches. (The term “surge” is also often used to describe sudden and dangerous natural storm weather events that occasion alerts from the National Weather Service.)
It’s first worth noting that each of these metaphors are an inaccurate way to describe the narrow range of police-reported crimes committed by poor people. I have asked a number of journalists recently what characteristics about either the causes or effects of particular kinds of crime are similar to the natural-world concepts of a “surge” or a “wave.” No one has been able to answer the question. In fact, the terms suggest a natural phenomenon that actually behaves quite differently from things like shoplifting or shootings or robberies or carjackings. I have not seen any evidence that these are actually good metaphors for any type of crime, let alone for all types of police-reported crime that have different root social and environmental causes.
Most importantly, by focusing so much on fluctuations in “crime,” these metaphors elide the relatively high levels of violence in U.S. society compared to other societies that have less inequality and more investment in medical care, early childhood education, affordable housing, etc. The constant and hyperbolic and dramatic focus in U.S. media on short-term fluctuations distracts people from examining the root causes of the high levels of harm, regardless of weekly, monthly, or yearly fluctuations. In this way, we are constantly trying to identify little policy tweaks that some politician or police department proposed in search of short term answers for “surges” and “waves” and not focusing on the structural features of our society that scientific evidence shows actually determine the levels of harm. This is how “crime” discussions get derailed to focus on insignificant tweaks to bail policy or to placing outsized importance on some new Mayoral initiative in a particular city.
I think this is one of the most subtle but harmful aspects of the “crime wave” and “surge” metaphors: they mislead people into intuiting that we don’t and can’t grasp the root structural causes of violence and harm, just as everyday people can’t really grasp these big natural phenomena about our physical world. We are just mortals at their mercy. My intuition is that this quite powerfully supports carceral responses to crime like police, prosecutors, and prisons because those interventions thrive when people don’t care about root causes and instead just desperately demand short-term protection from the immediate vicissitudes of life.
Moreover, the use of metaphors like this tends to make people feel helpless and powerless. When people feel helpless and powerless in the face of forces they can’t understand that scare them, they are far more likely to embrace authoritarian reactionary puffery rather than feel like they and their community can organize, come together, and be part of (and already have all the tools to provide) workable solutions.
Finally, the terms “wave” and “surge” (and the lack of similarly scary metaphors for decreases in police-reported crime by the poor) are thrust into a culture with a decades-long history of misinformation that has resulted in them falsely believing that “crime” is increasing when it isn’t and over-estimating the rates of police reported “crime.”
As Elliot Young recently explained well, people believe crime is rising even when it is falling and overestimate their risk of being victimized by certain kinds of crimes (even as they dramatically underestimate their likelihood of being hurt by crimes of corruption, pollution, wage theft, fraud, and tax evasion). And when people are scared, evidence shows that they become more punitive. Journalists who rely on hyperbolic language and metaphors about crime are perpetuating the conditions that gave rise to these misperceptions and the resulting punitiveness. This is especially true of hyperbolic language that conveys an unstoppable and overwhelming natural force, like a “wave” or a “surge” because it exacerbates a sense of helplessness and desperation.
What is to be done?
Luckily, there is a pretty easy solution. Even for journalists who reject my longstanding advice to stop focusing so much on these narrow police-reported crimes and, within that coverage, to stop focusing so much on short-term fluctuations in police-reported crimes, it’s still fairly simple.
Journalists writing a news story rarely need to editorialize to describe a fluctuation in any kind of police-reported crime as a “wave” or a “surge.” They can simply use precise language that indicates the direction and amount of the change, as well as the time period over which the change was observed. For example, if forced to write a story about the issue (which I’ve explained before is probably not a good use of your scarce journalist time given the existential threats we face from global ecological collapse and the related rise of fascism), a journalist could say: “in the last six months, there have been 15% more carjackings than in the same six-month period one year ago.”
The nature metaphors of “wave” and “surge” are inappropriate for almost any of their common usages in daily public safety coverage.
This link is to the first essay in my book Usual Cruelty, the Punishment Bureaucracy, where I demonstrate this with hundreds of examples.
The terms “wave” and “surge” are sometimes applied to other social phenomenon and used in the media as metaphors in non-crime stories. In this post, I’m not arguing that they are exclusively used as crime metaphors, just that there are reasons to believe that they are especially harmful and inappropriate in that context.
I recently read Jarrod Shanahan’s book Captives: How Rikers Island took New York City Hostage. Like your writing, it is both dispiriting and enlightening. So sad to think how little has changed.
Thank you for your writing on this subject. The need for more precise language in all journalism is needed to counteract wasteful spending and fear based policy decisions. Do you publish in newspapers?