School violence sensationalized by media

ALARMING ESCALATION IN MEDIA HYPE PORTENDS DEMISE OF REPUTABLE JOURNALISM

Well, that may be an overstatement. But such sensationalism has become commonplace in mainstream media outlets. Flashy headlines, melodramatic sound-bites and doomsday predictions are frequently employed to gloss over the banality of factual reporting. Even if media hype is not a dire social calamity, it is an unacceptable practice the public cannot ignore.

Last Monday morning, a top story in the news was the averted shooting at Burlington High School in Milwaukee. According to the hysteria-tinged report, the potential blood bath had been plotted by a conspiring group of angry, gun-toting teens.

Thanks to the excellent work and quick action of local authorities, the alleged were thwarted before taking out a selected group of peers and teachers.

The news story was scripted to portray the Milwaukee incident as yet another link in the frightening chain of school-shootings plaguing Middle America. Included were the requisite references to Arkansas and Oregon, quotes from panicked Wisconsin residents, assurance that the traumatized community has begun healing, and now this from Iraq….

The report appeared to fit the standard school-shooting motif, without actual gunfire.

But when I later read a full account of the event, the facts of the story didn’t quite mesh with the sensational news-byte I had been bombarded with that morning.

Just to point out the major discrepancies, the kids were taken into custody Sunday when a peer told police they were planning a shoot-out. They didn’t have any guns, an unimportant detail according to a Burlington police officer, because guns can be obtained easily.

There was no hit list, but each boy had mentioned people that they wished were dead. Far from packing metal on the Monday morning bus ride to school, it appears the only criminal acts committed by these teens were that they wore black nail polish and listened to Metallica.

The incidents in Jonesboro, Ark., Pearl, Miss. and Springfield, Oregon are horrible tragedies. But they are the exception. While it is wonderful that such a tragedy did not occur in Wisconsin, it is inexcusable for the media to distort the facts so a story conforms to a prefabricated trend.

In September, the Justice Policy Institute came out with a study that debunks mainstream paranoia over school shootings. Violence in schools has decreased overall.

While the 40 children killed by guns in school during the 1997-1998 school year is 40 too many, the number should be put in perspective.

Twice as many people are killed each year by lightning, that epitome of extraordinary fatalities. Every week in America, 40 children are killed by a parent or caretaker.

The numbers show that children are safer in school. Twenty-three times more juvenile gun deaths occur outside of the classroom.

Unfortunately, mundane everyday gun violence isn’t as conducive to media blitz and the consequent public outrage.

So, instead of concentrating on measures that might actually save kids’ lives (like restricting gun sales, promoting gun safety, providing supervised after school programs), attention is focused on the unsubstantiated, media-created trend.

The results of this irrational fear are equally irrational, and often harmful, actions. Some communities have considered cutting extracurricular programs in response to dubious threats of student violence. The number of students punished for threatening acts has skyrocketed.

Kids are being expelled for wishing death upon the Spice Girls and Barney the contemptible dinosaur. According to Vincent Schiraldi, director of the JPI, a computerized search of the nation’s newspapers found 216 incidents of such bizarre school expulsions in May and June of 1998, while a search of the same period in1997 turned up only 22 such incidents.

Media hype has created several other trends that are startlingly devoid of any statistical evidence. Last August, in The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Fumento showed that the only increase in road rage was the number of magazine covers devoted to the snappy alliteration. The panic in 1996 over an epidemic of racially motivated church fires was extinguished when the insurance numbers revealed no increase in such arson cases.

Back to last Monday when I was fretting that we are all being duped by media hype. My fears were soon diminished by a news item buried back a ways from page one: a poll on public perceptions of the media, conducted by New York magazine, found (among other discouraging factoids) that 4 out of 5 Americans believe the press distort or rearrange facts to make a story more interesting.

So, the public is well aware of media duplicity. I still don’t feel all that much better.

After all, what is more disturbing: journalism’s increasingly tabloid-esque tendencies or the public’s complacency to tolerate news that obscures fact with fiction? I hope neither practice becomes a true trend.