The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Herschel Walker, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia, flashes a police badge as he speaks to supporters during a campaign rally Oct. 18 in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article headlined “Crime is surging (in Fox News coverage).” It was a follow-up to an article I’d written a few weeks prior, exploring the fact that real-time crime data is anecdotal, cherry-picked or both.

We know that violent crime rose in 2020, but it’s not clear that it did nationally in 2021. We know crime is up in some places this year, but not always where or how much. In New York City, for example, violent crime is up overall, but murder is down. In a lot of other places, we simply don’t have good data.

Given that, it seemed odd that Fox News was so heavily focused on the subject. Since the beginning of 2021, the network has mentioned crime at a generally increasing rate. What was the ostensible trigger?

The folks at Fox News did not like this question. They and their allies insisted that I was downplaying or excusing crime. They pointed to anecdotal and cherry-picked data to suggest that their focus was important, often ignoring the fact that my article focused largely on the increase in coverage in 2022, for which data from 2021 are irrelevant. The short answer was that there was no obvious, objective reason for Fox News to be talking about crime more, beyond a decision to do so.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

I was considering this point this morning as I was looking at how the cable networks were covering other issues ahead of the midterm elections. While in the prior article I looked at mentions of subjects each week, I tried something different this time: splitting up months into chunks and comparing them with the average number of mentions over the first half of the year.

Here are the results for three topics that have come up a lot in national politics. You can see that mentions of abortion in July were higher than in the first half of the year on the three major networks, then returning closer to the baseline before increasing again in October. For mentions of “gas” and “fuel,” mentions over the past four months have generally been less common than in the first half of the year — in part, clearly, because prices began to fall in June.

Part of the volatility you see is that these subjects often aren’t mentioned as much on cable news.

Now compare those charts with the one tracking mentions of crime.

Through July and August, all three networks were mentioning crime about as much as they did in the first half of the year. In late September, though, mentions on Fox News began to soar. In the middle of October, mentions began to rise on CNN and MSNBC, too, in part as a reflection of the increased discussion of crime on the campaign trail.

A perfect encapsulation of the partisan divide on crime

So now we have a point of time to look at here: What was it in late September that triggered Fox News to start talking about crime so much?

The increase has been stark even in absolute terms. Here’s the extent to which Fox News has been mentioning crime and gas or fuel each week. (These are averages of the number of 15-second blocks in a day during which the term appears in closed-captioning.) From the spring through the summer, crime didn’t come up much. 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 mentions of crime have kept rising.

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

The Democratic gains in generic-ballot margin (relative to the first half of the year) began to slide in early October.

Republicans and Democrats have not been talking about crime disproportionately in their television ads, it’s worth noting. Analysis from USA Today published last week showed that about a third of Democratic ads (for federal, state and some municipal elections) mentioned crime, as did 4 in 10 Republican ads. That latter percentage, though, jumped from 27 percent in August to 40 percent in September. A Washington Post analysis found that Republicans have spent $50 million on ads mentioning crime since Labor Day.

We can elevate anecdotes of our own, of course. Fox News and the Republican Party have crafted a narrative about the danger of American cities — at least, ones run by Democrats — since the summer of 2020. Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera offered a more-accurate-than-it-may-seem assessment of that summer’s protests, claiming that the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers was a tipping point against the left. He claimed that this was a function of the emergence of things like the “defund the police” effort, which most major Democrats didn’t endorse or actively opposed. But that summer did cement the perception among Fox News viewers and supporters of Donald Trump that urban areas were collapsing into paroxysms of violence, an idea that’s proved useful to Republicans and others on the right. The right has actively elevated the idea that there’s a partisan divide on support for police, something reflected even in Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s deploying a badge as a regular part of his politicking.

There remains no actual evidence that something changed in late September to warrant a new increase in the attention being paid to crime by Fox News. But we do know that the GOP sees a narrative about crime as useful, that Fox News discussion of the subject has increased steadily as the midterms have approached and that the network is otherwise fairly explicit in letting its programming directly benefit the Republican Party.

Perhaps there’s a nonpolitical reason that Fox News is heavily invested in ramping up its discussion of crime. Or perhaps we’ll see a pattern like the one in 2018, when Fox News kept talking about immigrant “caravans” more and more and more … until the election ended.