The tragic school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University highlight the problems associated with the media coverage of school violence and raise concerns about how the media cover such events. These events generate tremendous news coverage, which creates the impression that serious school violence is common and is increasing in severity and frequency. In fact, there are fewer than one homicide and/or suicide per one million students. In addition, the news coverage fails to report on the more common forms of violent victimization such as bullying, fights, and minor assaults because they lack the lurid and shocking images that are found in these tragic incidents. Not only does the media coverage mislead the public about the common forms of school violence, but also it ignores the downward trend in school violence. Since 1992, there has been a reduction in school violence and other forms of criminal victimization at school while media coverage of school violence and crime in general has dramatically increased. Finally, students are more likely to be a victim of violence away from school than they are at school.
Television may be the primary culprit of this misrepresentation since the majority of Americans report that the television media is their primary source of news, a report which is problematic because television news coverage displays a distinct selection bias in its reporting. Television news stories are selected using the old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” because television networks are competing for ratings and advertising dollars in an even more competitive market since the introduction of 24-hour news channels and the expansion of cable television. Therefore, the news coverage has become more selective, focusing on unusual, shocking, or frightening stories. This selection bias becomes more important because most viewers are passive recipients of the news, meaning the average viewer takes the news coverage at face value and does not explore the issues raised in greater detail.
One concern about the way the media cover stories of school violence is that they may produce fear in students, their parents, and the community. In order for the media coverage to produce fear in its viewers, the coverage must be perceived as credible and unbiased. Fear is created by distorting the audience’s perception of the severity and likelihood of the school violence by focusing on rare events such as the tragic events at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University.
Students may develop an unreasonable fear that their school will fall victim to one of these rampages despite the fact that schools are relatively safe places and these events are extremely rare. The more a student resembles one of the victims, the more likely he or she is to empathize with the victim and be afraid that he or she will become a victim of a similar crime. Ironically, these same students do not fear events that are much more likely to occur and lead to their death, such as car accidents.
The impact of the media coverage is not uniform. The level of fear generated by the media coverage will vary based on a variety of factors such as the viewer’s demographic and psychological characteristics, previous victimization, and level of exposure. For example, female students will be more likely to experience fear after viewing the media coverage than male students because women are more fearful of crime in general and because the coverage has suggested that several of the perpetrators were targeting their female classmates. In addition, the more media coverage a person is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to report feeling afraid.
Another concern for the way the media handle the coverage of school violence is that it may lead to copycat behavior from other troubled teens. Culturally, the culprits are elevated to the status of minor celebrity through excessive media attention. After all, the public usually can recall the names of the school shooters such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine High School), and Cho Seung-Hui (Virginia Tech University), but typically not the names of the victims. The media attention acts as a tantalizing reward for copycat behavior while providing very little disincentive for such behavior. A troubled teen may engage in copycat behavior in order to receive the media reward of 15 minutes of fame. Clearly, media exposure does not produce a copycat effect in most viewers, but for those who are suffering from a psychological disorder or social problems, the media coverage may produce such an effect.
A final concern raised by the media coverage of school violence is that it may impact school policy and security measures. The media coverage may cause the parents and school officials to overreact to the threat of school violence and implement target hardening security measures, which include strict enforcement and punishment such as zero-tolerance policies and more security officers, operational changes such as lockdown procedures and response teams, and high-tech solutions such as metal detectors and video cameras. Instead of focusing on the more common forms of criminal victimization that occur at school such as bullying, minor assaults, and larceny-thefts, these hardening security measures focus on the type of criminal victimization that is extremely rare and therefore will have little to no impact on the likelihood of school victimization. In addition to not reducing criminal victimization at school, the security measures implemented after a frenzy of media attention on an incident of school violence may create a climate within the school that is not conducive to learning. In fact, the school may begin to feel more like a detention center than a school. Lastly, the security measures may heighten the fear that the students are already experiencing after their exposure to the news coverage instead of calming or reassuring the students as was intended.