Friday, August 04, 2006

RCMP and crime in the media
Aug. 4, 2006

Having experienced the challenge many times of trying to squeeze information out of the RCMP in the course of chasing a news story, I can’t imagine how much tougher the task will get if B.C.’s Mounties take the advice of their communications department and clam up further.
People in B.C. are much more fearful of being a victim of crime than they need to be, the department found in an internal report last year, made public this week after the Vancouver Sun got hold of a copy. The report speculates that the problem might be the volume of crime stories in the media.
If RCMP media officers weren’t quite so open and prompt in their dealings with the media, the report wonders, is it possible the media would fixate less on crime and people would calm down a little?
Two-thirds of the British Columbians surveyed as part of the report said they were fearful of being a crime victim sometime in the next year. Not even close to that many actually will be. These days, the fear of crime is considerably more prevalent than crime itself, the report notes.
I can see how you might conclude that the media had something to do with that. A month-long survey of undisclosed B.C. newspapers done as part of the report found that 67 per cent of all front-page stories in that period were about crime. While it’s hard to know what to make of that finding - what’s the “right” amount of crime news, anyway? - it’s still a significant statistic.
I wouldn’t want to see RCMP restricting crime information in an attempt to change that, however. This is our province. These are the police officers who we pay. We have a right to know what’s going on.
Beyond that, the media would simply dig up other sources to fill the void if RCMP became more reticent - sources that would almost certainly be less accurate, more speculative, and even more likely to frighten the uninformed reader or viewer. Crime reporting without access to accurate police information is truly a scary prospect.
But that’s not to cast aspersions on the main point of the report. The public perception of the likelihood of being a crime victim is seriously out of whack with the reality. We are scaring ourselves well beyond what’s actually necessary for our safety.
The front pages of B.C.’s newspapers certainly aren’t the only places where crime and violence take up a disproportionate amount of space. The most popular TV series these days feature epic levels of violence and crime, and unnecessarily grisly images aired at completely inappropriate times of day. Even cooking and home reno shows are filled with menace.
News of war pours into our homes every day as well. We need to know about them - in this global age, even the most distant wars hit home in one way or another.
But we also need to know what to do about it, rather than simply be left to grow ever more fearful. And the media have to assume some responsibility for that. Context needs to be put into stories of crime and conflict, to help us understand the reasons, the patterns, and the genuine risks to our communities.
Police themselves, however - and politicians - also have to answer for the culture of fear we find ourselves in. Crime is a powerful political tool that both groups have used as needed to scare voters into doing what they want.
Perhaps the cause at hand is more money for the police department, or the election of a law-and-order man. Convince the public to be very afraid, and all of a sudden the voters are on your side. But when interest groups and politicians scare up voters by conjuring the spectre of crime, the level of public anxiety increases.
What’s the truth of the matter? According to the RCMP report, British Columbians have a 14 per cent chance of being burgled in the next two years. Five per cent will be assaulted.
Those are still striking numbers, and of no comfort to the people who do end up the victims of crime. But it’s heartening news for the 85 to 95 per cent of us who aren’t affected in a typical year. We still live in a country where most of us do not routinely experience crime. If only we could allow ourselves to believe that.
The information must continue to flow from our police departments to the media. As tempting as it might be for the RCMP to believe that too much information is the primary problem in terms of perception of public safety, the issue is much more complex than that.
But maybe the leaked police report will finally get us talking about why we’re more worried than we need to be, and what we can do about it. This old world has troubles enough without us imagining it any worse.

1 comment:

BC Mary said...

Hi Jody:

Nice to see your blog. I have one, too:
The Legislature Raids

I've just read your column about the RCMP thinking the media provides too many crime stories. Know what I think? I think that the media provides too many reports about sad little small-time crime, and virtually nothing about horrendous big-time crime.

Don't you look back (as I often do) to that remarkable RCMP press conference on 29 Dec. 2003 when Staff Sergeant John Ward explained that organized crime had infiltrated every level of our society ... and that "no one should be surprised" about the Legislature raids.

Ward seemed to be speaking over the heads of all the people employed to look after a civil society, as if he knew nobody amongst them would explain even the basic facts. He seemed to care. To my mind, he made the RCMP look great that day.

But he never spoke out again. And in a recent photo, he looked whipped and worried. I hope I'm wrong.

So the strangest things keep happening, without explanation: former Constable Ravinder Dosanjh goes on trial May 15 for obstruction of justice; May 17 the trial suddenly stops; the media doesn't explain.

Basi, Virk and Basi come up again and again "for election" and little is said in the news about it. Only by sleuthing have I learned that Sept. 18 is the next date to watch.

Basi, Young and Duncan have appeared "for election" and I'm not a bit clear about where or when that trial is going ahead. Maybe Dec. 4?

And Jody, these are issues of extreme public interest, about which the media says virtually nothing.

Honest to gosh, I can't help wondering if the media itself -- CanWest in particular -- is seizing upon this excuse (police won't talk) to disguise their own failure to at least get onto the Public Access Computers and tell the public when these issues are due to be aired in court. At least that much.

I'd give RCMP Sgt Ward a 9, and the media a low 2 for explaining these serious criminal charges which, if proven, are affecting everything and everybody in B.C. Sheesh, it's been almost 3 years!