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How Media Coverage of Crime Shapes Perception of Public Safety: PHI Researcher in the SF Chronicle

Violent crime in San Francisco is down–about 25% lower than it was in 2006–and San Francisco is safer, statistically, than many other big cities. Yet San Franciscans report feeling less safe. Pamela Mejia, head of research and principal investigator for PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group, discusses the complexities of perceived public safety in San Francisco and how these factors connect to the data.

  • San Francisco Chronicle
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“San Francisco seems significantly scarier to many people these days — even though technically speaking, it’s safer than it used to be.

That’s according to a recent nationwide Gallup poll in which respondents were asked if they considered 16 major U.S. cities “safe to live in or visit.” While a slight majority, 52%, rated San Francisco safe, that’s a steep drop-off from 2006, when seven out of 10 respondents rated the city safe.

What’s more, the 18 percentage-point change was the second-largest dip out of all 16 cities in the survey. (Chicago was first.)

To San Francisco residents, this news may not come as a surprise. Local perceptions of public safety have worsened too, according to numerous citywide polls.

2022 survey conducted by the city found that San Franciscans felt less safe than anytime since 1996. In another poll last year commissioned by the S.F. Standard, seven out of 10 respondents said they felt less safe than in 2019. Chronicle polls, meanwhile, have similarly found discontentment among residents with the state of public safety in the city.

Yet perception is not a perfect fit with reality, at least according to crime statistics compiled by police. Nowadays, a typical San Franciscan is less likely to be a victim of a violent crime than in 2006. The violent crime rate in 2022 was 636 per 100,000 residents, about 25% lower than it was in 2006. San Francisco is safer, statistically, than Houston, Dallas, Seattle, New Orleans and numerous other cities ranked safer by the Gallup poll respondents.

Thus, while San Francisco’s plummeting safety reputation has many drivers, its actual violent crime rate is not among them. People are “very bad” at estimating violent crime trends and assessing risk in their communities, crime analyst Jeff Asher previously told the Chronicle.

Instead, San Francisco’s changing reputation has a complex assortment of causes unrelated to the risk of violence, according to crime media researcher Pamela Mejia, director of research and associate program director at the Berkeley Media Studies Group. Some of the change reflects national shifts in crime and safety rhetoric; some is grounded in the reality of city life; and the rest stems from how social media, news outlets and other sources tell San Francisco’s story to the world.

First off, the national picture. One big thing Mejia and others noticed in the Gallup poll: The shift was driven pretty much entirely by Republicans and older people. And this wasn’t just true of San Francisco. Gallup found a difference of 29 percentage points in how safe Republicans rated cities vs. Democrats. That’s a new thing: In 2006, the two parties’s safety ratings were split by just two percentage points on average.

Mejia pointed out that Republicans have long sought to link crime with big Democrat-run cities to paint their adversaries as weak and drum up support for the more punitive policies they espouse. In the three years since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, sparking nationwide protests, Republicans have amped up this messaging. They’ve had significant support, Mejia said, from conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute, who for decades have invested in what she calls “narrative change.”

“Increasing divisiveness in political rhetoric is a feature, not a bug, of the last fifty-plus years,” she said.

Then there’s the way that news outlets portray San Francisco. Mejia, who studies the impact of media and politics at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, said she and her colleagues noticed a recent pronounced shift in the way many news outlets discussed San Francisco — a shift that culminated this year in what she calls the “doom loop narrative.”

Older people, who tend to watch nightly television news and are concentrated outside of downtown areas, tend to be the most susceptible to these kinds of narratives; younger people, who may get their news from other sources and also experience city environments more directly, tend to see them as safer.

Of course, news outlets wouldn’t have anything to write about — nor would Ron DeSantis have anything to stand in front of — if San Francisco streets were clean and problem-free. They’re not. You might be relatively safe walking around S.F., but your valuables certainly aren’t: San Francisco’s property crime rates consistently rank among the highest of California cities and have increased since 2006.

That’s where the city’s twin crises of housing insecurity and drug addiction come in. These have likely had a profound effect on the public’s perception, Mejia said.

Mejia calls the housing crisis a possible “overarching backdrop” for how people both within and outside of San Francisco interpret their feelings about safety — and about how well the city is functioning.”

To read the full article, click on the link below. This article may require registration or a subscription to access.

Originally published by San Francisco Chronicle

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