Its open season on tourists in Florida.
Until just recently, Florida was called the Sunshine State and was on its way to being the vacation capital of the world. Now its called the murder capital of America, a place where even visitors from Bosnia should fear to tread.
"Gunned Down Like Animals!" ran one British tabloid headline. "Shot Like a Dog," "Come to Sunny Florida and be Murdered for Absolutely Nothing," "Slaughter in the Sunshine" and "Plan Your Trip Like a Commando Raid" screamed others. Similarly, a Philadelphia Daily News headline blared: "Another foreign tourist is slain. And the Sunshine State becomes a STATE OF TERROR."
Non-tabloids were more subdued. But both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times featured photos of German tourist Uwe Wilhelm Rakebrands sheet-covered bloody body on their front pages, with that in the Los Angeles paper in living color. U.S. News & World Report seized the opportunity to do a cover story on Florida, "Paradise Lost: The Sharp Decline of the Sunshine State."
The only problem with this coverage of Floridas "crime wave", as Business Week put it, is that there isnt one.
Statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show that the number of murders of non- residents in the state is actually down considerably from last year. This in turn was lower than the year before. In the last 12 months, nine tourists have been killed in Florida. But as recently as 1989, 35 non-Floridians were killed in the state. Official crime figures do not distinguish between tourists and other non-residents, nor are they broken down by nationality.
The killing of non-residents dropped even more quickly than those of Florida residents. Non-resident homicides as a percentage of the total declined from 2.5% in 1989 to 1.8% last year, and looks to be considerably lower this year.
The chance of a visitor being a victim of violent crime is less than 0.01%.. At the same time, the overall murder rate in Florida both in absolute terms and per capita has gone down significantly. In 1986, Florida had 1,371 murders and non-negligent homicides, according to the FBI, a rate of 11.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. This was 60% above the national average. By 1992 that figure in absolute terms was 1,248, but because Florida had gained so many inhabitants, the per capita rate had declined to 9.4 and was now below the national average of 9.8..
The media have largely ignored such statistics, instead concentrating on the lurid details of each individual killing. By doing so, say some critics, it is practically committing another crime—crippling Floridas primary industry, threatening the jobs of many of its citizens, and wrecking the vacation hopes of tourists throughout the world.
While noting that every human life lost to violence is a tragedy, Joy Mills, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Commerce said, "The recent frenzy over crimes against tourists in Florida has warped the worlds perception without regards to statistical reality."
In 1992, nearly 41 million visitors came to Florida, generating $30.9 billion in taxable sales and 160,000 jobs for residents. Of these tourists, over 7 million were from other countries. Until now, at least, the states tourist industry has grown rapidly. The first four months of 1993 showed an increase of 22 percent in foreign (other than Canadian) tourists over the same period last year. Now that all may be changing.
According to Florida Department of Commerce Secretary Greg Farmer, estimates show European cancellation of Florida trips occurring at 25% as the state goes into the heavy November-April tourist season. It "has wiped out what was going to be a banner year," he said. "This is a catastrophe for Florida and for America."
To most of us, this photo symbolizes Florida.
Tourists, too, are suffering. Florida businesses are reporting that terrified foreign nationals are buying up all manner of weapons to defend themselves against the perceived slaughter. Some have been turned away trying to buy handguns..
In the latest incident, British national Gary Colley was shot during an attempted robbery at a rest stop in northern Florida. His death came less than a week after that of Rakebrand, who was shot by would-be robbers in Miami. Canada aside, the United Kingdom is Floridas largest international market, accounting for 1.1 million tourists last year, according to the Florida Division of Tourism. That will change, if the British Safety Council, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, has its way.
In a mid-September press release, James Tye, the groups director general, advised Britons to "avoid Florida like the plague." Tye has also demanded that the nations Foreign Office advise Britains not to travel to that state. While the government stopped short of this, along with the German government, it did issue travel advice for tourists going to Florida, while doing so for no other part of the country.
To the media, in 1993, this image symbolized Florida.
Many Britons seem quite concerned. "We have absolutely been inundated by hundreds and hundreds of Brits seeking to travel to Florida," said Marianne Hahn, senior press officer for the British Safety Council. Hahn said the Safety Council made its demand to the Foreign Office because "for other countries where there was risk to tourists, information was being given out and we were concerned that British tourists were not being given that information for Florida."
But why single out Florida and not the United States as a whole?
"What was becoming apparent was that obviously crime per se against tourists everywhere (in the United States) is high but increasing in Florida, as Im sure youre aware," said Hahn. "In 1991, 35,000 tourists were either mugged, raped, or robbed in Florida and since then its gone up." A spokesman for the British Foreign Office, Jeremy McCady, also cited that statistic.Yet, officials at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the office of tourism insist there are no such data breakdowns into tourist and non-tourist categories. The Safety Councils press release refers to the 35,000 by the ambiguous term of "visitors." Further, Hahns characterization of those 35,000 as "mugged, raped or robbed" is inaccurate. The 35,000—which was actually 36,512 in 1991, represents all crimes against non-Floridians in 1991, 80% of which were non-violent and against property only.
The mistake probably stems from an article in a London tabloid, The Daily Mail. Apparently rather than contacting the state government, both the Safety Council and the Foreign Office took their data from the incorrect piece. McCady further justified the Foreign Offices singling out of Florida saying that, "attacks on-out-of state tourists have increased something like 129 percent over past three years." His source, he said, was a Dade County, Florida newspaper. Yet that figure, too, is completely wrong. Violent crimes against nonresidents decreased stood at 35,767 in 1989 and had rose by 2,000 the next year. Last year, they fell to 34,371, a decrease of 4% in actual numbers. All this time tourism to Florida was increasing, meaning the decrease was much larger still in per capita terms.
Its also not possible that the Foreign Office was confusing Dade County figures with state figures, since the violent crime rate for that area has also been dropping.
While Floridas violent crime rate remains the highest among the states, at 1,184.3 per hundred thousand residents for 1991, it is not appreciably higher than that of another tourist Mecca, New York, which in 1991 had a rate of 1,163.9. Washington, D.C., another tourist attraction, has a violent crime rate of 2,453.3 per hundred thousand for 1991. Asked if she had comparative data for attacks on tourists in other states, Hahn said they "had a lot of information from the British media" and offered to send the appropriate articles to Investors Business Daily. Yet the only data in the articles she sent was a chart from London daily The Independent comparing Miami murders to those of other major cities. That chart revealed that in absolute numbers and in per capita terms, several cities had more murders than Miami.
When confronted with this, Hahn sent more material from British papers but none contained any data whatsoever. Still, she said, "Its common knowledge that the murder rate has gone up tremendously there. Its absolutely disgusting whats happening there!"
The reason the Safety Council couldnt provide data comparing Florida tourist killings to those in other states is because apparently there is none.
When Florida officials tried to gather such information, presumably to show they werent the only state where tourists are killed, they found that other states didnt even break down their crime figures by resident and non-resident, much less distinguishing tourists. Thus, no one can say whether tourists are any less or more safe in Florida than in any other part of the United States.
"It appears were being singled out because were the only ones bothering to keep track of these things," said Joy Mills, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Commerce. What can be said with certainty is that murder and crime are not unique either to Florida or the United States. One out of 82,963 Britons were murdered in their own country last year. This compares to one out of approximately 600,000 British tourists to Florida were killed. Thats not a direct comparison, since Britons might spend only a couple of weeks in Florida.
The frenzy is such that a few days ago it made CNNs Headline News and other national media outlets when a Florida tourist from Illinois was shot in the arm. On the other hand, when a German visitor to Florida was shot to death in a small town in Oregon last Wednesday, it received small mention in 14 places, according to a search on the Nexis computer database system. This contrasts with 613 references to either the Rakebrand or the Colley killings.
According to Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, Florida may have been the victim of a slow news period. "August is usually the slowest news month," he said. "Congress was not back in session yet, we didnt have the Israel-Palestinian deal, Clintons health plan was not introduced."
Olasky adds that "There is a particular horror in guests being killed . . . in guests whom youre supposed to be protecting." But he says that this doesnt explain why the media struck in a year when fewer foreign guests were being killed than in previous years..
Digby Anderson, director of the Social Affairs Unit, a London-based think tank, identified another element in the medias miscoverage of the Florida killings, one peculiar to the British tabloids. "Theres an English game of saying how unruly the U.S. is," he said.
Its also not possible that the Foreign Office was confusing Dade County figures with state figures, since the violent crime rate for that area has also been dropping. Olasky notes that creating false epidemics of crime or disease is hardly a new media vice. In this case, however, it seems the media have gone beyond withholding statistics and sensationalizing individual cases. One British newspaper, the Daily Star, quoted the Miami Herald as saying, "There are places in the world where tourists should not go if they wish to stay alive. Florida tops the list."
Its a damning self-condemnation — or at least would be if it were true. But Herald employees insisted no such comment ever appeared in its pages and ran a search on its computer database to confirm it. "Theres no way we would have written something like that," said one. "I dont know why they would say we did."