Friday, December 28, 2007

The Availability Heuristic: Your "Clear Channel" to Fear of Crime

It's what psychologists and economists like to call "the availability heuristic," the more available a particular risk is to your consciousness, the more likely you are to prioritize managing that risk, even if the probability of the risk coming to pass times the degree of harm it would result in makes it a lot less serious than many other risks in your environment. (For a great reading list on the topic check here).

One of the forces that has driven governing through crime is the availability of crime in the information environment. The mass media, and especially television, is obviously a big source of this availability. On primetime, one might say, the crime rate is always up. But the true density of crime information and its degree of apparent urgency and plausibility derives from a complex web of knowledge and power that binds government, the mass media, academia, and the endless semiotic web of conversations and images across the landscape of an average day.

Increasingly road signs are part of this web. The National Amber Alert System, created by an Act of Congress (growing from an informal collaboration between Texas radio DJs and police departments), means that smart highway signs all over America now periodically flash information about child abductions in progress. The latest addition to this already stocked field of crime information availability will bring the FBI's most wanted list to digital billboards in 20 US cities early next year.

According to Joe Milicia's reporting for the AP (read it in the sacbee):

The FBI's most wanted bank robbers, violent criminals and terrorists will soon appear on 150 digital billboards in 20 cities nationwide.

The agency has teamed up with Phoenix-based Clear Channel Outdoor to begin airing mug shots following a successful test run in Philadelphia that led to several arrests.

One of those arrests was that of a man suspected in the fatal shooting of a Philadelphia police officer, the agency said Thursday. He was captured in Florida as a result of exposure on the billboard, the FBI said.

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