Fear of Crime Essay

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Fear of crime is widespread among people in many Western societies, affecting far more people than the personal experience of crime itself, and as such, it constitutes a significant social problem. Although researchers note that it is a somewhat problematic measure, the question most frequently used to assess fear of crime is “Is there anywhere near where you live where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” Over the past 3 decades, roughly 40 to 50 percent of individuals surveyed in the United States responded affirmatively to this question (or slight variations of it). An international survey conducted in 17 industrialized nations in 2000 found that overall, 17.5 percent of respondents expressed moderate to high fear of crime, ranging from a high of 41 percent in Switzerland to a low of 5 percent in Finland and Sweden.

The single most common reaction to fear of crime is spatial avoidance—that is, avoiding places perceived to be dangerous. In some situations, fear can serve as a beneficial, even life-saving, emotion. However, in other circumstances, fear is an emotion that unnecessarily constrains behavior, restricts personal opportunity and freedom, and, ultimately, threatens the foundation of communities. In addition to generating avoidance behaviors, fear of crime can also lead to significant attitudinal changes—including support for more stringent criminal justice policies and negative attitudes toward members of minority groups, who are frequently portrayed by the media as the main perpetrators of crime.

One of the first large-scale studies of the fear of crime, conducted under the auspices of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice in the late 1960s, found that fear of crime was based less on actual personal victimization and more on inaccurate beliefs about the extent of crime. This study suggested that individuals assess the threat of victimization from information communicated to them through a variety of interpersonal relationships and the media, and from interpretations of symbols of crime to which they are exposed in their local environments. Recent studies of the fear of crime show that, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, individuals who experience the lowest actual rates of criminal victimization (women and the elderly) tend to report the greatest fear of crime, whereas those with higher rates of victimization (especially young minority males) express significantly less fear.

The majority of the general public obtains the bulk of their information about crime from the mass media— including movies, crime drama shows, and news reports. One of the first sophisticated theoretical explanations of the effects of media consumption on individuals was posited by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, whose cultivation hypothesis asserts that television viewing cultivates a “mean world view” characterized by a heightened fear of crime and inflated estimations of personal risks. Although more recent studies have refined this hypothesis and pointed out that media effects are somewhat more nuanced and vary according to the sociodemographic characteristics of media consumers, this mean world view is generated by the media’s exaggeration of the frequency and seriousness of crime and major emphasis on violent crime, particularly murder. For instance, although the U.S. murder rate decreased by 20 percent between 1990 and 1998, during the same period the major television network newscasts increased the number of their stories about murder by 600 percent. In addition to a disproportional focus on murder, at various points in time, the media have generated moral panics (and hence fear among the general public) surrounding alleged threats to elderly people’s safety, child abductions, and sex offenders, among others. These media depictions also frequently portray the perpetrators of crime as members of marginalized groups such as racial minorities and homeless people, when in reality these individuals most frequently demonized in the media are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. Perhaps even more problematically, the media’s disproportional focus on young black males as the perpetrators of crime can serve to justify more stringent criminal justice policies and expenditures and the elimination of social support systems, such as welfare and job creation programs.

In addition to the role of the media in generating fear of crime, it is important to note that politicians and legislators exploit fear of crime as a political tool. One of the first elections in the United States to utilize crime and fear of crime for advantage was the 1968 campaign of Richard Nixon. Similarly, influencing the 1988 election of George H. W. Bush in the United States were advertisements implying that presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was soft on crime. The political uses of generating fear of crime have been particularly manifest in the post-September 11, 2001, period, during which the governments of several Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, have emphasized their vulnerability to terrorism, thereby often generating fear among the general public and to justify the passage of several laws that eroded civil liberties. Similar to the depictions of crime being associated with members of minority groups, the portrayal of terrorists as primarily Muslim and Arab has led to increased incidents of racism against members of these groups.


  1. Baer, Justin and William Chambliss. 1997. “Generating Fear: The Politics of Crime and Crime Reporting.” Crime, Law and Social Change 27:87-107.
  2. Biderman, A. D., L. A. Johnson, J. McIntyre, and A. W. Weir. 1967. Report on a Pilot Study in the District of Columbia on Victimization and Attitudes toward Law Enforcement. President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  3. Gerbner, George and Larry Gross. 1976. “Living with Television: The Violence Profile.” Journal of Communication 26:173-99.
  4. Glassner, Barry. 2004. “Narrative Techniques for Fear Mongering.” Social Research 71:819-26.
  5. International Crime Victimization Survey. 2000. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.unicri.it/services/library_documentation/publications/icvs/).
  6. Shirlow, Peter and Rachel Pain. 2003. “The Geographies and Politics of Fear.” Capital and Class 80:15-26.
  7. Warr, Mark. 2000. “Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy.” Criminal Justice 2000. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

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