Mainstream media coverage of crime pushes right-wing narratives that blame Democrats, but crime is worse in GOP-controlled areas
Crime is rising in rural areas, cities, and states run by Republicans despite GOP claims that progressive policies are to blame
Mainstream media outlets are bombarding prospective voters with coverage about crime, playing into election narratives from conservatives and Republicans that blame both individual incidents and broad nationwide trends on Democrats. But this news coverage often fails to debunk these disproved GOP narratives or note that violent crime has also risen in GOP-run areas.
Some notable recent mainstream media failures in pre-midterm reporting include giving a free pass to Georgia U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker’s lack of performance in debates, failing to press GOP nominees on their scandals and flip-flops, scandalizing Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman’s recovery from his stroke earlier this year, and allowing Arizona’s secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem to spout conspiracy theories and lie his way through an interview unchallenged.
The poor coverage has continued in some news reports about crime as an issue in the upcoming elections. Republicans have hyped the specter of crime to an absurd degree, and numerous stories have taken the bait, featuring snippets of GOP ads, quotes from Republicans emphasizing narratives blaming Democratic policies or focusing on crime in Democratic-run areas, and/or focusing on polling showing that voters prefer Republicans to Democrats on crime.
A September 26 New York Times article headlined “G.O.P. redoubles efforts to tie Democrats to high crime rates” included all of these Republican-friendly narratives. An October 5 Politico article headlined “Midterm voters key in on crime” noted, “Republicans relentlessly tie Democrats to a pandemic-era rise in crime on the campaign trail and in TV ads.” An October 15 article from The Hill, headlined “Republicans ride crime wave worries in midterms home stretch,” reported that “Republicans up and down the ballot are working to make worries about a crime wave translate to a red wave,” citing one political ad in Illinois, quoting one Republican gubernatorial candidate, and citing multiple polls on the issue including one saying voters think Republicans are “better suited to deal with crime than Democrats.”
On October 20, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a segment which bore the online headline “Democrats are embracing the police, but can that distract from crime in their cities?” An October 25 Associated Press story on the New York gubernatorial race explained that “Republicans around the country are closing with a message that follows closely to what [Lee] Zeldin has argued much of the year. In recent debates from Georgia to Michigan and Wisconsin, GOP contenders have blasted Democrats as inattentive to crime.” And on October 21, NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns aired a segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe pushing GOP narratives on crime in Pennsylvania.
Yet, for all this attention given to GOP narratives on crime, none of these stories pointed out that while Republicans blame Democrats for violent crime, it’s nearly as high or worse in GOP-run parts of the country. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Violent crime isn’t just rising in the nation’s cities. Murder rates across the rural U.S. have soared during the pandemic.” From the article:
Homicide rates in rural America rose 25% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest rural increase since the agency began tracking such data in 1999. The CDC considers counties rural if they are located outside metropolitan areas defined by the federal government.
The rise came close to the 30% spike in homicide rates in metropolitan areas in 2020.
The CDC hasn’t analyzed 2021 homicide data yet. In some rural counties, murder rates remained high last year, while in others they have begun to recede along with Covid, data from local law-enforcement agencies shows.
The center-left think tank Third Way released a report on March 15 titled “The red state murder problem,” which found that “despite a media narrative to the contrary, this is a problem that afflicts Republican-run cities and states as much or more than the Democratic bastions.”
Third Way also found that in 2020, “per capita murder rates were 40% higher in states won by Donald Trump than those won by Joe Biden” and “8 of the 10 states with the highest murder rates in 2020 voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election this century.”
From the report, which used data from 2019 and 2020 because data from 2021 wasn’t yet available:
Every news outlet from FOX to CNN to The New York Times to local newspapers has a story with attention-grabbing headlines like “US cities hit all-time murder records.” Fox News and Republicans have jumped on this and framed it as a “Democrat” problem. They blame it on Democrat’s “soft-on-crime” approach and have even referred to a New York District Attorney’s approach as “hug-a-thug.” Many news stories outside of Fox have also purported that police reform is responsible for this rise in murder and have pointed to cities like New York and Los Angeles.
But there is a large piece of the homicide story that is missing and calls into question the veracity of the right-wing obsession over homicides in Democratic cities: murder rates are far higher in Trump-voting red states than Biden-voting blue states. And sometimes, murder rates are highest in cities with Republican mayors.
For example, Jacksonville, a city with a Republican mayor, had 128 more murders in 2020 than San Francisco, a city with a Democrat mayor, despite their comparable populations. In fact, the homicide rate in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco was half that of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Bakersfield, a city with a Republican mayor that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Yet there is barely a whisper, let alone an outcry, over the stunning levels of murders in these and other places.
An October 20 article published in The Atlantic also reported on “an exhaustive new study” from the Center for American Progress that “compares cities that have elected so-called progressive prosecutors with places whose district attorneys continue to pursue more traditional approaches.”
Senior editor Ronald Brownstein explained that this study “found that murder rates increased in a smaller share of cities with progressive prosecutors (56 percent) than in those with traditional prosecutors (68 percent) or prosecutors who fell in the middle (62 percent).” From the article:
Countering conventional wisdom, the study found that homicides over recent years increased less rapidly in cities with progressive prosecutors than in those with more traditional district attorneys. It also found no meaningful differences between cities with progressive or traditional DAs in the trends for larceny and robbery. “I think it’s really important to emphasize the extent to which we looked for a relationship and found none” between a prosecutors’ commitment to reform and crime rates, Todd Foglesong, a fellow in residence at the University of Toronto and one of the co-authors, told me.
And on October 22, former Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, who often writes about the criminal justice system, exposed the GOP’s bait-and-switch when focusing on crime in Democratic-run areas while upbraiding a sloppy column in the Post from his former colleague and serial misinformer Marc Thiessen. From Balko's substack newsletter, The Watch:
It’s certainly true that where people live closer together, they’re more likely to kill each other. More density means more crime. This has been true since the dawn of civilization. It has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans.
But as James Surowiecki points out on Twitter, if we were to eliminate the murder statistics from Kansas City and St. Louis, the rest of Missouri’s murder rate would still be higher than that of New York state, even if you include murder statistics from New York City. Put another way, Republican-run Missouri’s murder rate without its two largest cities is still higher than Democrat-run New York’s with its two largest cities.
The same is true of Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi, three other states Thiessen mentions in his column. Thiessen wants to blame those states’ high murder rates on cities like Jackson, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. But as Surowieki points out, the murder rates in those states without those cities would still rank among the top 10 most murderous in the country.
Last year, for example, Republicans and police groups pointed out that Oklahoma City was one of the few large cities to see a drop in homicides in 2020. Since Oklahoma City is in a red state, has a Republican mayor, and has a traditional, law-and-order district attorney, conservatives contrasted the city to places like San Francisco and Portland (both of which, it’s worth noting, have much lower homicide rates than most cities in the country). But homicides in Oklahoma City then shot up in 2021, from 76 homicides to 90. So they stopped using it as an example.
The largest U.S. city with a Republican mayor -- Jacksonville, Florida -- set a 23-year high for murders in 2020. The city saw a dip in 2021, but only after that particularly violent year, and it remains the most murderous city in Florida. So if you want to measure the change in murders from 2020 to 2021, Jacksonville is a Republican success story. If you want to measure the overall murder rate, it remains more violent than progressive-led, Republican-whipping boy cities like Tampa.
The next largest city with a Republican mayor is Ft. Worth, Texas. Homicides soared there in 2021, despite falling in nearby Dallas. The next largest Republican-led cities of Fresno, Mesa, Omaha, Colorado Springs, Miami, and Tulsa have all also seen an increase in murders since the pandemic. Bakersfield, California, which has a Republican mayor and has long been a bastion of conservative politics and law-and-order prosecutors, has long had one of the highest murder rates in the country.
As of 2020, 11 of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. were run by Republicans, and 10 saw a spike in murders since the pandemic began.
This crucial context is missing from the mainstream media reports listed above, which consistently push the right-wing narrative that Democrats are to blame for high crime.
Many of the articles we mentioned above highlighted polls showing Republicans having an advantage on this issue. The New York Times article stated: “Polling shows that voters tend to see Republicans as stronger on public safety. By a margin of 10 percentage points, voters nationwide said they agreed more with Republicans on crime and policing, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll” from September.
Politico reported that “Republicans are leaning into fears that are evident in the polling: About three-quarters of respondents said violent crime is increasing nationally.” The Hill cited three polls on the importance of crime to voters for the upcoming elections, then added: “Another Sept. 23-Oct. 3 Reuters poll found that more voters think Republicans are better suited to deal with crime than Democrats, 39 percent to 30 percent.”
With the stated importance of this issue among voters, media outlets have a responsibility to get the story correct; rather than relying on what voters think is happening with crime, they should tell readers the reality. If they did, perhaps the polls they cite wouldn’t be so favorable to the Republicans who are lying about crime.