From AJR, September 1998 issue
When Children Kill Children
In covering schoolyard shootings, it's important to provide perspective, and to avoid concentrating too heavily on the suspects while ignoring the victims.
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
O N OCTOBER 1,1997, IT HAPPENED IN PEARL, Mississippi. Two months later in West Paducah, Kentucky. March 24, 1998--Jonesboro, Arkansas. April 24--Edinboro, Pennsylvania. May 19--Fayetteville, Tennessee, and May 21--Springfield, Oregon. The media were covering a rash of school shootings on front pages and at the top of newscasts. Though such shootings had happened before, a cycle worth investigating nationally had emerged, prompting talk of a growing trend, the copycat effect, root causes and guns in school, not to mention media excess, sensationalism and insensitivity.
News organizations were challenged with presenting breaking news thoroughly and accurately, with empathy and depth--and for an audience that took extreme, often personal, interest in all aspects of tragedies involving children and violence. What play should the articles receive? How much does the public need and want to know? Where should the focus of the coverage lie?
Many of these questions require serious consideration before a traumatic event like a school shooting occurs. After all, newsrooms don't have a lot of time to establish detailed game plans once the violence takes place.
It was about 8:30 a.m., May 21, when the newsroom of Portland's Oregonian received word of the shooting in Springfield, a town 100 miles away. Fifteen-year-old Kipland P. Kinkel stood accused of opening fire in a crowded high school cafeteria. ``We just started people rolling," says Executive Editor Peter Bhatia. But as the digging began, he says, the staff started ``thinking about how we could bring more context to it right away," to find more meaningful stories, answer the``why" questions, put it ``in a broader context than a disturbed teenager with a gun...well within the first day."
The result? A front page completely dedicated to the story: the opening paragraphs of three pieces on the shooting, the suspect and the heroes who intervened; a map of the school chronicling the events; and short bits of information on the suspect, the dead and the wounded, all under a large photo of students hugging and crying and the two-line headline: ``Springfield's agony: He just kept shooting." Practically the entire opinion page contained related commentary. And day one was only the beginning. Stories exploring the school shooting remained on the front page for the next five days, with exhaustive coverage inside.
Michele McLellan, the Oregonian's public editor and often its de facto complaint department, waited for the anticipated barrage of criticism. Surprisingly, she got just the opposite. ``Most people were saying they thought our coverage was extremely sensitive.... I got about two dozen [calls] on the positive side, half that many over about two weeks time on the negative side."
McLellan began thinking, ``What are we doing here that is provoking this response?" She cites two aspects of the Oregonian's coverage: exploring the broader issues as well as the mayhem and not focusing too heavily on the suspect. ``The people who called...mentioned those most of all, and what they were taking from that was, `Hey, you're really interested in the readership here and what we might want to know.' "
Opening up the coverage of school shootings to include the broader aspects of the nexus of children and violence is key, agrees Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. ``Good newspapers like the Oregonian do their best to make themselves smarter on the multiple and complex issues of these stories," he says. ``They devote more resources and more effort to covering the multiple dimensions and layers of a complex story."
But even before turning to root causes, readers require firm grounding. A news organization's first step should be to provide as much detail about what actually happened as possible, says Steven Gorelick, a sociologist who teaches communications and journalism at the City University of New York. Let the reader in on everything, he says. Don't start censoring out the possibly offensive or gory items, not to feed a public desire for salacious material, he says, but to ``limit larger trauma by being very explicit about the details. It leaves less room for people's imaginations to fuel an even larger panic.... The more information, the better."
Arkansas' Jonesboro Sun did give its readers everything, and, like the Oregonian, received positive feedback as a result. Day one stories about the Jonesboro shooting covered the front page and monopolized six-and-a-half pages inside. The reaction to the pull-no-punches approach, though, surprised Bob Haiman, Freedom Forum Media Studies Center fellow and former St. Petersburg Times editor, who examined the Sun's coverage of the shooting.
``My hypothesis going into this was that the only way a local newspaper could cover a horrible story like that and still win accolades from its readership was to go into the tank, to soft-pedal it," Haiman says. His ``softball" theory, he found, was ``180 degrees wrong." Instead, the Sun ``published all the information which often gets papers into trouble with readers who find it too blunt, too graphic, too insensitive and intrusive." But, he adds, ``they published all that stuff in the overall context of a much larger body of coverage which was quite sympathetic."
The Sun's reporting was ``wall-to-wall, of course.... We threw extra pages in every day for eight days--about four extra pages--and covered every aspect we could think of," says Editor and Publisher John W. Troutt Jr. The shooting and its impact on the community dominated page one for eight consecutive days.
The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, reacted similarly when violence erupted at a Pearl, Mississippi, school, taking ``the attitude that we were going to cover the news," says staff writer Butch John. Almost everyone in the newsroom had a hand in the initial coverage, and the reporting ``went on intensively for at least a month and a half.... It never seemed to die," he says.
Vital information usually comes the first day--the who, what, when, where, how. News outlets should just get the facts out at first and not ``try to weigh in with why so much as what," avoiding overly simplistic and irresponsible reporting, says LynNell Hancock, director of the Prudential Fellowship for Children and the News and an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The typical reaction is ``demon-seed," she says: The suspects are painted as children without a conscience, which is rarely the reality.
The real reasons are often difficult to pinpoint and sometimes just not possible to decipher. The media need to explore many possible ``whys," not purport to have found the definitive one. James Garbarino, director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, recounts a network television interview in which he was asked, ``Where do you point the finger?" He responded, ``You'd need at least two handfuls of fingers."
It's understandable for reporters, and the public at large, to look for some kind of facile explanation, says Gorelick, who often finds himself being asked similar questions. ``The other possibility is that there may be no explanation and no way to protect [ourselves] from future types of acts," he says. ``That alternative view is very hard for all of us to live with.... You're essentially saying to someone, `Something happened that may have no clear explanation.' " He cautions the media against ``latching onto these global explanations that are given by supposed experts who use the incident to make some larger point."
At the Clarion-Ledger, ``we spent a lot of time trying to make sense out of something...and find reasons for something there aren't reasons for," says John. The paper explored the satanic and cult issues surrounding this particular shooting, which many in the community grabbed onto as a desperately needed explanation.
S OMETIMES THE FINGER-POINTING focuses on guns. During the Jonesboro coverage especially, the national news media were being called on their tendency to blame a stereotypical ``Southern gun culture."
``We're not worried about the victims anymore. We now have this Southern gun culture that is responsible for all acts of violence south of the Mason-Dixon line," one Jonesboro resident remarked at a town meeting sponsored by the Freedom Forum and aired on ABC's ``Nightline." The negative response the Oregonian did get echoed the same theme. McLellan listened to readers complain about a fixation on lack of gun control as the villain. USA Today's Mindy Fetterman, deputy managing editor for news, remembers many readers asking if USA Today was using the school shootings to attack gun ownership.
Says Bhatia, ``We, and the press in general, have been criticized in the past for leaping to that too soon." But he says he has not been involved in coverage of an issue involving shooting where talk didn't turn to gun control. ``There is a gun culture to some degree here," he adds. The paper ran a piece on guns in Oregon and the hunting tradition embraced by many families in the state, as well as an article on the father of the student lauded as a hero in the incident, and his steadfast belief in the National Rifle Association.
In Jonesboro, says Hancock, who looked extensively at the media's response to that tragedy, some of the best reportage asked, ``Who's to blame?" and answered, ``We don't really know." The reporters explored many possibilities instead of seeming to say ``guns are the problem, period," she says. The Sun ran one such story under the headline, ``No one reason given for unthinkable tragedy," on the second day of coverage.
Yet journalists can't ignore the role guns play in youth violence, says Garbarino. Granting too much attention to the opposite view that ``guns don't kill, people do" is also a mistake, he says. Another is labeling an incident a ``senseless act of violence." School shootings do ``make sense inside the head of the kid who did them.... In fact, most of these kids commit these acts as a culmination," he says.
T HOUGH READERS WANT AND NEED INFORMATION on the suspect and an exploration of why a child would start shooting other children, it's important to many members of the public that the victims not be forgotten. McLellan and Troutt share that concern.
``Of course you have to give the details of the legalities of this and the court action," Troutt says. ``But I think it's wrong to concentrate on the shooters and not on the victims." In Jonesboro, four girls and a teacher were shot to death. The accused are two boys, ages 11 and 13. The paper struck a chord with readers, he says, when it ran life histories of the five victims.
Bhatia says the Oregonian ``tried to make sure we focused as much on the victim as the perpetrator.... Traditionally, newspapers tend to be hugely curious about the perpetrator." On day one, though, the Oregonian ran a photo of the suspect on page one and a headshot of one of the two teenagers who died inside. McLellan wishes photos of all three had been played on the front, something the Sun did choose to do on its first-day coverage of Jonesboro. The Oregonian's decision, says McLellan, ``was pushing the suspect out there a little farther."
Troutt also urged his staff to look at the effect the March shooting had on Jonesboro itself. ``This sort of thing doesn't just affect those involved," Troutt maintains. ``It affects very dramatically the entire community."
Haiman has high praise for this approach and rattles off a multitude of Sun stories on both the victims and the citizens of Jonesboro--stories detailing the grief of families and the community; counseling sessions and vigils; offers by local schools, radio stations, businesses and individuals to donate money or hold bake sales and fundraisers for the survivors. ``They were creating daily newspapers for the next three weeks in which the people of Jonesboro could really see their pain, their lives, their agony and come to grips and heal," says Haiman, a former president of the Poynter Institute. ``John, in what I think was a genius kind of journalism insight, understood that that's the real story because that story affects all 50,000 people who live in Jonesboro.... That's why the townsfolk were so approving of the coverage."
Garbarino says it makes sense to ``focus on the practical effects on a family and on a community," but cautions journalists against drowning in sentimentality. He applauds the reporting on the two boys--one who was shot and one who grabbed the shooter--in Oregon.
Hancock says emphasis on the shocking nature of such events should be toned down, allowing more prominence for stories on the kids and families involved. ``I think all crimes," says Gorelick, ``can be covered with more attention to the impact on victims and with more attention to the subsequent criminal justice process that follows an incident like this."
W HILE RESIDENTS OF SOME OF THE communities where the school shootings took place praise their local media for responsibile reporting, many criticize national news organizations for what they call sensational, stereotypical and insensitive coverage.
A Freedom Forum report on Jonesboro says many news oulets gave too much prominence to speculation about the root causes of school violence. In a May 26 Washington Post op-ed piece, James Glassman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called the school shooting coverage inordinate, saying the press chose ``to blow individual incidents in small towns in Oregon into national crises."
But editors involved in the coverage say there was much more to it than that. USA Today's Fetterman says editors put a lot of thought into determining which stories really ``ring the chimes of the country.... It became obvious after Pearl, Mississippi, that this was the story--not this particular one--but the trend of the shootings." Stories about guns in school have a big impact on readers, she adds, because many have children in school.
National coverage, by its nature, has to emphasize the relevance to all Americans and explore the societal impact and causes. Perhaps inevitably, this level of media will suffer more criticism, particularly at the hands of the communities affected, the communities the media seem to invade. ``I think the national media too much saw it as a crime story," Troutt says.
Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, calls the community's higher regard for the work of local media a natural consequence. ``If you live in the community and you read the local paper and the local news is very careful because they live there, I think they can be perceived as being more sensitive," he says. ``The national media will tend to look at this as what's happening in the country."
So how should the national media cover these events? Perhaps the pitfalls are simply part of the territory. ``You wouldn't dwell in great lengths in the national media on the feelings of the victim's cousin," says Wald.
Gorelick sympathizes, saying the national media tend to be seen as outsiders, whereas the local press ``often becomes a large-scale community support network." He cites time constraints as a big problem for national broadcast outlets.
But after the day one story, national outlets can and do offer more. Says Garbarino, ``If you're a national journalist, the question is, `What is it about our country that spawns youth murders at a rate that is pretty much unknown to most of the modern world?' "
The Los Angeles Times, says National Editor Scott Kraft, tries to take that approach. He cites a Times piece the day after the Oregon shooting on how school administrators across the country were addressing safety issues as an example of the broader stories the Times wants to do. Such articles examine what these events say about our society. ``We try to answer that," he says. And if there are no definitive answers, the Times' stories ``at least discuss them."
Fetterman says USA Today also explored what's happening in the country to lead kids to commit such acts. But that's not to say that the human element doesn't come into play on the paper's pages, she says. ``We're sensitive to small-town America because we're sold a lot in small-town America.... We're interested in telling people across the country how people in Jonesboro, Arkansas, are coping."
But with so much national attention devoted to these events, the media can give the impression that there's an epidemic, creating an unrealistic scare among readers and viewers. Most news outlets revisited the previous school shootings with the advent of each new one, implying, even if inadvertently, a connection.
Kraft says the Times investigated the possibility of an epidemic and ``had stories that suggested there isn't really" one happening. ``The truth is," he says, ``when you think of all the schools around, they're very safe." But when there is a cluster of such events, it's hard not to give the impression that they are rampant, he says, citing the coverage of plane crashes and attacks on abortion clinics as instances where readers and viewers could also assume a bigger problem than actually exists.
Schools are relatively safe. According to the National School Safety Center, which has been tracking school-associated violent deaths through newspaper clipping services, there have been 227 since July 1992. This breaks down to an average of 38 deaths a year, or 1.5 deaths per 1 million students. Yet, deaths for the 1996-97 school year totaled 25, while those in 1997-98 came to 41. And there has been an increase in incidents where more than one person is killed: There were two multiple death episodes in 1996-97 and eight in 1997-98. Bhatia says the spasms of school violence are a ``Catch-22" for news organizations.
``Obviously, this is a huge story," he says of the Springfield shooting. ``We tried to feed that appetite.... We also tried to be very responsible in explaining to people, to offer people meaningful statistics that showed how all this fit together."
One Oregonian story included statistics showing that the state's teens were far more likely to commit suicide than homicide with guns. A graphic illustrated the low homicide arrest rate for children in rural areas as compared to that in the inner cities.
Gorelick sees the need for context as well. ``News by its nature covers the unusual and infrequent. So almost any story runs the risk of making it seem like the incident described in the story occurs more often than it does." News organizations must provide information that can ``kind of moderate that fear into a realistic level," he says. ``Step two reporting" is what Gorelick calls this wide-lensed coverage, and he says he's seen a good amount being done.
Sid Bedingfield, vice president of CNN/U.S., says finding this balance is important in any crime story. ``You have to put it into perspective.... You have to look at the many schools where the children are safe."
Garbarino suggests that this round of shootings may indicate ``a kind of broadening of the epidemic of youth violence beyond the populations it's been most evident in." It is difficult to report without being alarmist, he says, but ``every parent should be aware of the fact that no matter how good a parent they are...their kid may be significantly troubled and goes to school where there are guns."
Despite some of the negative reaction, the media's coverage of school shootings did receive commendation. There were many at the Freedom Forum-sponsored town hall in Jonesboro who recognized the tough pressure the media withstand, acknowledged the press as a necessary part of the healing process and praised the coverage as being extremely informative.
Gorelick, for one, has little to complain about, saying he knows of many reports that tried to look at larger issues, trends and statistics in a reponsible, thorough way. ``It's sort of futile to argue that the press should somehow ignore or cover these stories less aggressively," he says. ``These stories about school shootings connect with some of our most basic fears about young people and safety and our children, and they are going to be covered extensively."