Crime and media – perception and reality

Published in The New Zealand Herald, 28th September 2022

With the surge in ram raids and other high-profile crimes reported in the media it would be easy to fear that we have a crime wave on our hands, particularly affecting young people. 

Yet, to the great credit of the Herald and Open Justice, we find a contrary narrative: the number of children before the courts has actually declined in recent years. And that is not all. If you go to the longer-term statistics at the Ministry of Justice website you will find that the number of young people before the courts peaked at nearly 5,000 in 2007-2008 and has been on a downward trajectory ever since, now standing at about 1,500.

This is not an isolated disconnect between the impression given by media coverage and the actual statistics in the crime area. Take adults. Again, it would be easy to gain the impression that crime among adults is on the up, and yet the statistics available from the Ministry of Justice website show that, while the number of adults charged peaked at nearly 120,000 in 2009-2010, only just under 55,000 were charged in 2021-2022, and this despite an increase of a quarter in the New Zealand population over that period.  

And these seem to be long-term trends that are not unique to New Zealand – similar patterns emerge in the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom – and go back a long time. For macro trends in crime, the decline seems to have started in these countries from the 1990s, and nobody is sure why. It could be the ageing of society (younger people are more likely to be involved in committing crime), it could be the greater availability of CCTV, it could be better security (for example, car alarms), it could even be improved police tactics and resources. 

Crime, along with sport, politics and business, is a staple of media coverage in New Zealand as elsewhere. This being the case it is difficult for people to judge whether crime is rising or falling, because, apart from their own experience, much of their information on these matters derives from the media, and for the media crime is a staple human interest story. 

One area of particular media focus has been violent crime, particularly murders and the use of firearms. There is not only the matter of human interest but also personal safety. Is New Zealand really becoming a more dangerous place?

Every day we learn about murders (homicides) committed and people on trial for murder with gruesome details reported. What do the statistics show? Since 1990 the rate of homicide has approximately halved, from just under 2 per 100,000 of population to just 1 per 100,000. This represents about one homicide a week, on average. This is comparable to Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and EU countries.

Perhaps more personal and impactful still is death caused by a firearm. According to one recent media report looking at figures since 2018 “(N)early 100 kiwis have been shot dead in just four years amid an explosion in gang warfare and firearms violence across our communities”.

This is worrying indeed. But what are the statistics? There are about 50-60 firearm deaths a year, but most of these are suicides, a figure that is rarely discussed in public. If we pick out homicides, the average rate has been steady for almost thirty years at about 0.2 per 100,000 of population, which is comparable to Australia, the United Kingdom, and most EU countries. Interpreting that as a raw number, this translates into fewer than ten firearm homicides a year, although there is evidence that this may be increasing over recent years (once we have taken out the Christchurch Mosque massacre). 

Does all this matter? After all, surely people are smart enough to take it all with a grain of salt, read between the lines, and come to their own conclusions and get on with their lives none too troubled by outsize media coverage of crime, particularly violent crime?

This possibility is borne out to some extent by the results that show that most people – over 70 per cent – felt safe alone in the dark in their neighbourhood, and almost the same number felt that there was not a crime problem in their neighbourhood. Nevertheless, it is evident that among those groups least likely to be victimised – the elderly – there was a greater degree of fear. 

One thing that does matter, and that may be related to the way the media cover crime, is that New Zealand has a high imprisonment rate by international standards. Our rate of about 200 per 100,000 is well above that of Australia, Canada, Western Europe, and even Eastern and Central Europe. 

There are no clear answers, but the intervention into the media of Open Justice could be used as an entry point to leaven the media diet of crime, particularly violent crime, with a greater attention to factual detail that may be able to balance the current thrust of much coverage.

Peter Davis, Emeritus Professor of Population Health and Social Science, University of Auckland.


    • Actually there were a lot of shortcomings in that post, but it was an improvement on what we are generally being fed in the media. For example, those stats are for appearances in court, not actual “crimes committed”, so it’s possible that those declines for both young and adults over the last 15 years are due to changes in police practices rather than real shifts in crime rates. I tried to use the data from the Crime survey which actually asks people about incidents of crime, but I could not get any time series. As for CCTV, well, I guess it is a cumulation of factors – ageinig more educated population, better anti-crime devices (e.g. alarm systems, CCTV), ore street lights etc

      Liked by 1 person

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