Taking A Closer Look at How the Media Reports School Violence
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

The fatal shooting of two students last week at Santana High School in Santee, California, has spurred a number of media reports around school violence and the increased availability of guns. While these reports strive to inform the viewing public, media coverage of school shootings have come under criticism in the past for pointing out problems, but not taking a closer inspection at the contributing issues. 

Vincent Schiraldi, MSW, is the founder and president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), a non-profit organization whose mission is to reduce society's reliance on the use of incarceration as a solution to social problems. He has authored a number of studies on issues such as juvenile crime, juvenile homicide, and school violence. 

Time2act.org recently sat down with Schiraldi to discuss how the media covers school shootings like those at Santana High. 

How is the media handling incidents of violence in schools?

I thought after [the violence at] Columbine, that things had improved and there were more context into their stories. There was lots of reports on how juvenile violence and school violence declined. There was also a lot of buzz about this not being a "trend."

I think the media forgot that [regarding the recent shootings at Santana High School]. I get the New York Times and the Post and saw front page stories about this on the first day, the second day and the third. On Today, there was a story on the increasing trend of bullying in schools. The public has no idea whether there is a trend, but if Katie Couric says there is, they might think it is so.

Statements like "another in a disturbing trend" need to be eliminated from the lexicon of television news.

You have spoken to people from Littleton, Colorado, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and West Paducah, Kentucky. What were their responses to the media coverage regarding those highly publicized school shootings?

"Disgust" is a word that leaps into mind. There was a universal gasp when the media covered those events. You had [members of the media] sneaking into memorial services, filming while the incidents are still going on. For example, in Columbine, where the kid is crawling out of the windows, there were televisions everywhere in that school. If the shooters had turned one on, they would have known he was headed out the window. Littleton, Jonesboro and West Paducah are forever adjectives associated with school shootings.

On the Discovery Channel about a year after Columbine, there was a well put-together town hall meeting in Memphis with kids and school officials. The panel included a teacher who talked down a kid with a gun, a student who had experienced school violence, psychologists and others. The program started with seven minutes of just blood-soaked footage. It could have been actually only three or four minutes, but it seemed like an eternity of graphic images. There were no images of memorial services, just blood - they went from shooting to shooting to shooting.

I got a few e-mails and calls about this. One was from a woman who sat her kid down to watch this and turned it off after the beginning because it was too traumatic. I know it sells. I'm not so [blind] to see media is also a business and they can't altruistic themselves out of existence, but there needs to be some self-restraint.

About a year and a half ago, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial that said no more school shootings would be shown on the front page. Why can't the New York Times and Post do that? The Times even published the editorial from the Sun-Times. What a great leadership position that would be for [the Times] to do that and set the standard with the Sun-Times. It would have reverberations throughout the industry.

Every report should produce data. I know the lead has to be "this horrible thing happened," but the story could also say that there is data showing a 70 percent decrease in school-associated deaths since 1992. Also, they can show that this matches data of a 68 percent drop in overall juvenile homicides from 1993 to 1999.

At the end of the day, there will be 16 school-associated deaths within 52 million students nationwide. That's a one in three million chance that it could happen. This is good information for parents and school administrators.

We rely on the media to tell us stories. A study shows that 76 percent of the public knows what they know about crime not from personal experience, but from the media. If people are badly misinformed, then I blame the media. The public can't be expected to read the latest government data, that's where the media comes in - to tell them.

Is the media giving too much attention to those who commit the violence? Are they giving them fame?

There is some research on the portrayal of young people in the media that shows they are over portrayed as criminals on the evening news in relation to their share of criminality. In order for kids to get on television, without having killed anyone, they have to have committed extraordinary acts.

This is a problem because there have always been disturbed kids, but at least for the last 10 to 15 years, there is also good access to guns. There is an itty-bitty number of kids who have a template to act out their anger in a way the world will know about.

These kids don't have the years under their belt to deal with their anger and are caught up in anger that can characterize youth. With more lethal weapons and access to the front page of news, the world can know about their rage. It gives this little group more room.

I recently presented data on the decline of youth crime to Congress and they were astonished - they found it really interesting. They can't say that. This is government data I'm giving back to them. Sixty-two percent of the public doesn't get [this information], they can't [not get it] too. The media has an incredible ability to tell about these things.

Can you discuss the effects of media reports on "copycat" incidents?

I have a gut reaction that says sure, a kid doesn't think of shooting up a school [until he/she hears about it]. I also have to rely on the data though. Since the school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi in the school year of 1998-99, there were 44 other incidents that year and 16 incidents last year (1999-2000). If I blame the media, how does the copycat phenomenon explain the decline? If the copycat theory is true, the numbers should have gone up.

There is no data yet, in individual cases, in regards to a copycat phenomenon. One copycat act is more than none, so did one occur [at Santana] because the shooter saw a previous one on television? Did [the Columbine shooters] do it because of what they saw from Jonesboro? 

I think it would be a fascinating study, to go to these kids and ask them [whether these were copycat acts]. It would be worthwhile analysis, as well as information on the influence of guns and teasing.

What about the effects school shootings have on school administration? 

I think that this is interesting with respect to this latest school shooting at Santana. A couple of weeks ago, there were reports of several school incidents that had been broken up because other students came forward. Then here we are in [Santee], outside San Diego, a major metropolitan area in terms of news and television, which must have run information on these reports, and the kids here didn't tell. A legitimate question then, is: Why?

I'm going to hazard a guess. Part of the reason these kids didn't tell, is that they felt they were not reaching out to a helping organization, but instead a punishing one. Santana High School is a school with cameras in the hallway and five officers - four security people and one police officer. It feels like a prison to me if I am a kid. It's more an issue of telling a correctional officer than telling a counselor. The first lesson you get in prison is "don't snitch." Therefore, there's a fear that zero tolerance policies will not allow kids to tell.

If it means a trip to a guidance counselor where they will really sit down with a kid and ask "are you serious about this," "what are you feeling," and so on versus expulsion and a felony conviction, there is a big threshold to go and tell. 

One study, by Mayer and Leone, says that in schools characterized by security and locker searches, kids reported more incidents of violence and feeling more fearful. One possible explanation is that the students in those "security-focused" schools don't turn to the adult administration, but instead decide to settle it in the school yard.

Finally, is the media helping or hurting?

Both. They are bringing attention to the problem of youth violence and discussing more things like guns and the effects of culture - things that are important to discuss and debate.

They are hurting because they allow the public to believe a trend is not a trend. They are rushing headlong into just throwing reports up on the evening news with out proper reflecting. For example, recently there were two injury shootings at schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland [the day after the shootings at Santana] that also which garnered news coverage. There are 15,000 homicides a year in America, so divided by 365 days, that's 41 people who were killed on the same day an injury shooting made headlines. I don't blame media for getting their details wrong, but instead making the choices to cover some things and not cover other things.

Does the person that died deserve less coverage? If we talk about homicides, the deaths of youths by the hands of their parents, of which there are 11 a day, or the 16 kids a day that die of gun fire, maybe we could wipe out those incidents and have an affect on those numbers. Instead, we pull cops out to put in schools.


To read "School House Hype: Two Years Later," co-authored by Schiraldi, go to: http://www.cjcj.org/schoolhousehype/

To read articles and commentary on the decrease in youth homicide authored by Schiraldi, go to: http://www.cjcj.org/jpi/crimedrop.html

Vincent Schiraldi, Founder/President, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, (202) 737-7270

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