What’s the non-obvious reason Fox News is talking more about crime?

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A few weeks ago I wrote an article entitled “Crime Rises (in Fox News Coverage)”. It was a follow-up to an article I had written a few weeks earlier, in which I examined the fact that real-time crime data is anecdotal, cherry-picking, or both.

We know violent crime increased in 2020, but it’s not clear if this was the case nationwide in 2021. We know that crime has increased in some places this year, but not always where or by how much. In New York City, for example, violent crime overall has gone up, but homicides have gone down. In many other places we just don’t have good data.

Given that, it seemed odd that Fox News would focus so heavily on the issue. Since the beginning of 2021, the network has been mentioning crime with a generally increasing frequency. What was the alleged trigger?

The Fox News folks didn’t like that question. She and her allies insisted that I downplay or condone crime. They referenced anecdotal and curated data to indicate that their focus was important, often ignoring the fact that my article focused primarily on the increase in coverage in 2022, for which 2021 data is irrelevant. The short answer was that there was no apparent, objective reason for Fox News to talk more about crime other than a decision to do so.

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I pondered that point this morning as I looked at how the cable networks are covering other issues ahead of the midterm elections. While in the previous article I looked at topic mentions each week, this time I tried something different: breaking months into blocks and comparing them to the average number of mentions in the first half of the year.

Here are the results for three issues that have come up a lot in national politics. You can see that abortion mentions were higher in July on the big three networks than in the first half of the year, then returned closer to the baseline before picking up again in October. When it comes to mentions of ‘gas’ and ‘fuel’, mentions have generally been less frequent in the last four months than in the first half of the year – partly due to the fact that prices started to fall in June.

Part of the volatility you’re seeing is that these issues often don’t get mentioned that much on cable news.

Now compare these charts to those tracking mentions of crime.

In July and August, all three channels mentioned crime about as often as in the first half of the year. In late September, however, Fox News mentions began to spike. In mid-October, mentions also began to surge on CNN and MSNBC, reflecting in part the increasing discussion of campaign crime.

So now we have a time to look here: What prompted Fox News to be talking so much about crime at the end of September?

The increase was also strong in absolute figures. Here’s the extent to which Fox News has mentioned crime and gas or fuel each week. (These are averages of the number of 15-second blocks in a day that the term appears in subtitles.) From spring to summer, crime was not common. Mentions of “gas” and “fuel” were much more common. Then gas prices peaked and mentions fell. A few weeks later, mentions of both crime and gas increased, but only crime mentions continued to increase.

One thing that happened in late summer was that Democratic candidates rose sharply in the polls. In August, I wrote about the party’s improved (but still shaky) chances in the midterms. As gas prices continued to fall, support for the Democrats and President Biden’s approval rating rose. We can plot the relative change in margin on the general ballot (as averaged by FiveThirtyEight) relative to the first part of the year, like we did with what Fox talked about.

Democrat gains on the generic ballot spread (compared to the first half of the year) began slipping in early October.

Republicans and Democrats haven’t talked disproportionately about crime in their TV ads, that’s worth noting. Analysis by USA Today released last week showed that about a third of Democrat ads (for federal, state and some local elections) mentioned crime, as did 4 in 10 Republican ads. However, that latter percentage rose from 27 percent in August to 40 percent in September. A Washington Post analysis found that Republicans have spent $50 million on ads mentioning crimes since Labor Day.

Of course we can also tell our own anecdotes. Fox News and the Republican Party have been crafting a narrative about the danger in American cities — at least those run by Democrats — since the summer of 2020. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera offered a more accurate assessment than might seem after this summer’s protests, claiming the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops was a turning point against the left. He claimed that this is a function of the emergence of things like the “defund the police” effort, which most major Democrats did not support or actively opposed. But this summer cemented the perception among Fox News viewers and Donald Trump supporters that urban areas are collapsing into bouts of violence, an idea that has proved useful to Republicans and others on the right. The right has actively promoted the idea that there is a partisan divide in police support, reflected even in Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker using a badge as a regular part of his politics.

There is no actual evidence that anything changed at the end of September to justify a renewed increase in the attention Fox News is giving to crime. But we do know that the GOP finds a crime narrative useful, that Fox News discussion on the subject has steadily increased as the midterms approached, and that the network is otherwise fairly explicit in serving its programming directly to the Republican Party to benefit.

Perhaps there is a non-political reason Fox News is keen to intensify its discussion of crime. Or maybe we’re seeing a pattern like that of 2018, when Fox News talked more and more about immigrant “caravans” … until the election ended.

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