If the news media merely got the facts wrong about an occasional homicide,
that would be no big deal. But the significance they attach to many
of the homicides and other violent crimes they choose to spotlight is
another matter. The streets of America are not more dangerous than a
war zone, and the media should not convey that they are.
Some places journalists have declared crime ridden are actually quite
safe. Consider an article Time magazine ran in April 1994 headlined
across the top of two pages: "Not a month goes by without an outburst
of violence in the workplace-now even in flower nurseries, pizza
parlors and law offices." One of literally thousands of stories
published and broadcast on what was dubbed "the epidemic of workplace
violence," Time’s article presented a smorgasbord of grisly
photographs and vignettes of unsuspecting workers and managers brutally
attacked by their coworkers or employees. "Even Americans who
see a potential for violence almost everywhere like to suppose there
are a few sanctuaries left. One is a desk, or a spot behind the counter,
or a place on the assembly line," the writer sighed.
More than five hundred stories about workplace violence appeared in
newspapers alone just during 1994 and 1995, and many included some seriously
scary statistics: 2.2 million people attacked on the job each year,
murder the leading cause of work-related death for women, the number-three
cause for men. "How can you be sure," asked a reporter for
the St. Petersburg Times, "the person sitting next to you at work
won’t go over the edge and bring an Uzi to the office tomorrow?"
Her answer was, "You can’t."
At least one journalist, however, grew leery of his colleagues’
fear mongering. Erik Larson, a staff reporter for the Wall Street
Journal, having come upon the same numbers quoted time and again,
decided to take a closer look. The result was an exposé in
the Journal titled "A False Crisis," in which Larson
revealed how the news media had created an epidemic where none existed.
Of about 121 million working people, about 1,000 are murdered on
the job each year, a rate of just 1 in 114,000. Police, security
guards, taxi drivers, and other particularly vulnerable workers
account for a large portion of these deaths. Cab drivers, for instance,
suffer an occupational homicide rate twenty-one times the national
average. On the flip side of that coin, people in certain other
occupations face conspicuously low levels of risk. The murder rate
for doctors, engineers, and other professionals is about 1 in 457,000,
Another vocational group with relatively low rates, it turns out, is
postal workers. The expression "going postal" became part
of the American vernacular after some particularly bloody assaults by
U.S. Postal Service employees against their supervisors. Yet postal
employees are actually about two and a half times less likely than the
average worker to be killed on the job.
All in all fewer than one in twenty homicides occurs at a workplace.
And while most of the media hoopla has been about disgruntled workers
killing one another or their bosses-the Uzi-toting fellow at the
next desk-few workplace murders are actually carried out by coworkers
or ex-workers. About 90 percent of murders at workplaces are committed
by outsiders who come to rob. The odds of being killed by someone you
work with or employ are less than 1 in 2 million; you are several times
more likely to be hit by lightning.
Larson deconstructed as well the survey that produced the relentlessly
reproduced statistic of 2.2 million people assaulted at work each year.
Most of the reported attacks were fairly minor and did not involve weapons,
and once again, the great majority were committed by outsiders, not
by coworkers, ex-employees, or bosses. What is more, the survey from
which the number comes would not pass muster among social scientists,
Larson points out. The response rate is too low. Fewer than half of
the people contacted responded to the survey, making it likely that
those who participated were not typical of employed Americans as a whole.
Given that workplace violence is far from pandemic, why were journalists
so inclined to write about it? Perhaps because workplace violence is
a way of talking about the precariousness of employment without directly
confronting what primarily put workers at risk-the endless waves
of corporate layoffs that began in the early 1980s. Stories about workplace
violence routinely made mention of corporate downsizing as one potential
cause, but they did not treat mass corporate firing as a social ill
in its own right. To have done so would have proven difficult for many
journalists. For one thing, whom would they have cast as the villain
of the piece? Is the CEO who receives a multimillion dollar raise for
firing tens of thousands of employees truly evil? Or is he merely making
his company more competitive in the global economy? And how would a
journalist’s boss-or boss’s boss at the media conglomerate
that owns the newspaper or network-feel about publishing implicit
criticism of something they themselves have done? Pink slips arrived
with regularity in newsrooms like everywhere else in corporate America
in recent years, and they didn’t exactly inspire reporters to
do investigative pieces about downsizing.
To its great credit, the New York Times did eventually run an excellent
series of articles on downsizing in 1996. In one of the articles the
authors noted off-handedly and without pursuing the point that about
50 percent more people are laid off each year than are victims of crime.
It is an important comparison. From 1980 through 1995 more than 42 million
jobs were eliminated in the United States. The number of jobs lost per
year more than doubled over that time, from about 1.5 million in 1980
to 3.25 million in 1995. By comparison, during that same period most
crime rates-including those for violent crimes-declined.
A working person was roughly four to five times more likely to be the
victim of a layoff in any given year than to be the victim of a violent
crime committed by a stranger.
For many, job loss is every bit as disabling and demoralizing as being
the victim of a crime. You can lose your home, your health insurance,
your self-esteem, your sense of security, and your willingness to report
harassment or hazardous working conditions at your next place of employment.
During the economic boom of the late 1990s layoffs occurred at an even
higher rate than in the 1980s. In what former Secretary of Labor Robert
Reich dubbed "down-waging" and "down-benefiting,"
highly profitable companies replaced full-time workers with part-timers,
temps, and lower-paid full-timers, and they subcontracted work to firms
that paid lower wages and provided poorer benefits. Yet throughout the
past two decades the news media printed and broadcast exponentially
more stories about crime. In the early and mid-1990s 20 to 30 percent
of news items in city newspapers concerned crime, and close to half
of the news coverage on local television newscasts was about crime.