W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Talking Heads: The Contribution of Media Presented Experts
W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
On March 24, 1998, two students opened fire on their classmates at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This was the third highly publicized school shooting of the school year. In the months prior to the Jonesboro shootings similar incidents had occurred in Jackson, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky. For NBC News, and much of America, the Jonesboro story began like this:
This special report, broadcast within two hours of the shooting, illustrates many themes that were repeated throughout the next few months. The report begins with the words "horror story." Much of the subsequent coverage included similar language. This research describes the emotionally charged, alarmist, and fear related rhetoric used to describe this incident. The special report tells us that two "young boys" are suspected to have done the shooting. As we now know, the shooters were, in fact, 11 and 13-year-old boys who were classmates of the victims. Later media coverage described these boys and attempted to define their motives. The special report points out that authorities "have no idea why the shootings occurred." The effort to explain the events of the day, especially as related to motive, was a key theme in the media's coverage of the incident in Jonesboro.
In the hours immediately following the shooting there were conflicting reports regarding the number of students and teachers who were killed or wounded. Subsequent coverage of this story included additional information, especially regarding a teacher who was killed as she tried to help students find shelter from the shots. The heroic actions of this teacher was discussed in many of the later stories. The media seemed to be trying to put a positive spin on very negative news. It appeared that the media was looking for a silver lining in these incidents. This search for a silver lining is interesting, sometimes bothersome, but was a common theme in this research. Heros were identified early in the coverage of the events and were often the subject of subsequent stories.
As indicated in the report, in a final "film at eleven" tease, NBC's continuing coverage on this tragic story would be available on MSNBC, with "complete details" on "NBC Nightly News." The effort to use this story to motivate viewers to tune in, or refrain from channel surfing during commercials, is another recurring theme in the coverage of the tragic events in Jonesboro. As the special report indicates, NBC News already had a helicopter on the scene. This is symbolic of another recurring theme, which is related to the effort to leave no stone unturned in the quest for "facts" related to this story.
Expert commentary was offered to the viewers on the night of the Jonesboro shooting. Professor David Halperin of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that "these are--are angry, violent kids who are--who feel very powerless. And the gun gives them a sense of total power." The reporter, Jim Avila, responded in a voiceover, "That may be the thinking. But tonight, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, very little makes sense at all" (Dateline NBC, March 24, 1998). This brief dialogue is representative of another theme that flows through the analysis of news coverage of events in Jonesboro. Rather than make an effort to understand the Professor's statement, and probe for more information that might help the viewers understand the events of the day, the reporter quickly dismisses the statement.
Several key themes are identified in this research. The media tended to use sensational and alarmist language in their discussion of the events in Jonesboro. The promise of new information regarding school shootings was often used to motivate viewers to stay tuned. Another theme was related to the media's effort to understand an event that in many ways defied understanding. The media looked for answers, but did so in a way that was not likely to yield helpful information. Experts were called upon to provide insight, but they provided limited information in a context that prevented an enlightened discussion of the events. This paper is arranged around these and other related themes. Each of these issues is discussed following a brief presentation of the methodology adopted for this research.
This paper focuses on the Jonesboro school shootings and describes a small percentage of the total media coverage that resulted from school shootings during the 1998-99 school year. During that year the media created an incredible amount of qualitative data in their coverage of these tragic events. Several school shootings occurred before the Jonesboro shootings and several occurred later in the school year. Media coverage intensified with each incident, resulting in a data set that is very difficult to organize. My goal, for this paper, is to describe themes that were commonly raised as the media described these stories. In doing so, I am limiting the data I will analyze, as well as the range of issues raised.
Data for this paper is limited to a single news provider. The data set is restricted to news stories broadcast by NBC News, excluding MSNBC and CNBC. Stories were located through a Lexis-Nexis search in the "news" library and "nbcnew" file. The search was limited to stories broadcast after January 1997. The original search, using the words "school w/s shooting or shot," yielded four hundred and twenty-four stories. One hundred and twenty-six stories were returned with "school w/s shooting or shot and jonesboro" as search terms. Approximately 10 percent of these transcripts were duplicate stories that had been broadcast more than once. A search using the terms "school w/s shooting or shot and professor or expert or university" yielded seventy-five stories. Each of these data sets were used in this research. The larger group of stories was used in an effort to quantify news coverage of all school shootings. The "jonesboro" database was relied upon to examine the coverage of the Jonesboro shootings. The "experts" search results, which narrowed the focus of stories contained within the original group of stories, was used to examine the contribution of experts.
The need for limiting the search to a sample of sources was evident as the original search terms, this time in the "news" library with a file limited to news stories from the past two years, yields more than sixty three-thousand stories. Many of these are duplicates, relying on the same AP or UPI wires. The job of sorting through and coding this data would be quite daunting. It was clear that, given available resources, the data set would have to be limited. I decided to limit the data by examining televised coverage of the events related to a single news event. I also decided to focus on a single news source.
While more serendipitous than scientific, the decision to focus on NBC News was made after hearing a pre commercial tease during the NBC Nightly News. I was shocked to hear Tom Brokaw say, "When we come back, another school day, another shooting: where it happened, the national implications" (NBC Nightly News, June 15, 1998). We all know that school shootings do not happen every day. Mr. Brokaw's misleading and alarmist statement, used to encourage viewers to stay tuned, illustrated that televised news, the primary news source for many, is influenced by factors other than the accurate reporting of news.
Transcripts in the "jonesboro" and "experts" data sets were coded with the use of HyperResearch software. Codes included cause, cure, hero, leading questions, tease, expert, and others. There was a hierarchy of codes within each major code group. For the purposes of this research there was no effort to differentiate between experts that could be defined as either state managers or intellectuals (Welch, Fenwich, and Roberts, 1988). Each story was coded, including identical stories that were transmitted at different times of the day. Although resulting in duplicate codes, this allowed for a documentation of the frequency of terminology, repeated expert quotes, and a narrowing of issues as the story is cut for use in another broadcast. With the exception of the following section, which uses a sample of four hundred and twenty-four stories, no effort was made to specifically quantify the coverage of school shootings.
Frequency of Stories Related to School Shootings
On October 1, 1997, Luke Woodham opened fire on classmates in Jackson, Mississippi. While not the first school shooting of the year (shootings in Florida and Alaska had been previously reported), this was the first school shooting to receive more than a single mention on NBC News. NBC's coverage of the Jackson shootings began with a statement that was not supported by their news coverage over the previous ten months. Tom Brokaw introduced the story. "Almost every week now, it seems, some peaceful place in America is rocked by a teen-age crime so violent it is difficult to fathom. Tonight it's a small town in Mississippi, a 16-year-old boy with girlfriend problems" (NBC Nightly News, October 1, 1997). Over the next three weeks NBC news mentioned the incident in seventeen news broadcasts.
The next school shooting occurred on December 1, in Paducah, Kentucky. Forty-five stories mentioned the shootings over the next three weeks. Coverage of the Paducah shooting, like the Jackson stories and those that would follow with each similar school shooting, included the definition of, and introduction to, an individual who became a hero as a result of his or her actions. Another theme that began to emerge was related to questions regarding whether or not to try the teen shooter as an adult. One of the stories included a description of an Arkansas incident in which two students were wounded by a sniper shooting from a wooded area (NBC News at Sunrise, December 16, 1997). This was the only mention of an incident that appears to be familiar to the Jonesboro shootings a few months later.
Jonesboro was the site of the third school shooting. NBC News broadcast eighty-five shooting related stories over the next three weeks. On April 25 a teacher was shot and killed at a school dance in Edinboro, Pennsylvania. This story, somewhat merged with the Jonesboro stories, was mentioned in fourteen broadcasts, bringing the total stories, from March 21 to May 8, to ninety-nine. While we might expect the cumulative impact of these incidents would result in an increasing number of stories with each new incident, the increased in coverage was greater than that which could be explained by the overlapping coverage of several similar incidents. The Jonesboro stories made only passing reference to the previous incidents and none of the ninety-nine stories had the previous incidents as a major focus.
On May 21 the final school shooting that resulted in student deaths occurred. This story was mentioned in seventy-five broadcasts over the next eight days. The trial of Luke Woodham, which began on June 2, resulted in thirty nine stories. One more school shooting, resulting in the wounding of two school employees, took place on June 15. Twelve broadcasts discussed this incident. The Jonesboro trial began August 9, resulting in fifteen additional stories related to the Jonesboro shootings.
A simple count of news stories indicates that NBC News increased their coverage with each incident. The number of stories went from 17 for the first incident to 45 for the next. The Jonesboro shootings resulted in 85 stories over a three-week period. The final shooting was the subject of 75 stories in the eight days following the shooting. Interestingly, although the news coverage had significantly increased with each new incident, the information provided had not necessarily increased at the same rate. Many broadcasts now included brief mention of the incident, often mixed with non related stories. For example, the Today Show and Dateline NBC would often include program notes such as "Ahead in this hour, we're going to talk about school violence. That terrible story about the school shooting in Arkansas is just one of many lately, and if you're a parent, it has to be a cause for great concern. In just a few moments, we're going to ask a school safety expert about what can be done about it" (Today, March 25, 1998). These teases appeared to increase with each incident.
In many ways, it might be said that NBC News had determined that these stories "had legs." Surette (1998) writes of stories that have "consonance" with other events. A story that fits with established themes is more likely to be selected as newsworthy. Repeated instances of extreme violence in schools created a clear opportunity for connecting these incidents to one another. At times it seemed that the lines between these stories had blurred, perhaps in an effort to increase the level of consonance. This research attempted to examine the coverage of a single event. This blurring of lines made this task more difficult that it would have been if the Jonesboro shootings had been an isolated incident. However, if it was an isolated incident, it is clear that there would have been far fewer stories. Although the following discussion focuses on the Jonesboro shootings, ties to the coverage of other incidents are also discussed to further illustrate the prevalence of certain themes.
The Jonesboro Shootings
One of the primary questions related to the Jonesboro shooting was related to the question of "why?" Other questions focused on the justice system's reaction to this incident. The issue of punishment was often raised in the days following the incident. In particular, news stories highlighted the fact that Arkansas law would not allow these children to be tried as adults. Questions of "why" and how to prevent another incident are discussed below as the following discussion is separated into discussion of "cause" and "cure." The role of the media, and the contribution of experts, is discussed throughout these sections. The discussion centers on the role that media actors play in defining the issues, often through leading questions directed toward experts. Finally, the emotional, fear related, and often alarmist rhetoric of these stories is discussed. Alarmist language, most often associated with teases that are used to keep the viewer tuned in to the newscast, provide clear examples of one of the most troubling themes identified through the examination of the data.
Cause - Why did this happen?
Much of the media interest centers on the question of "why?" The focus of this question may be on causes of youth violence in general, or on explanations for the actions of the boys involved in the Jonesboro shootings. The general and individual issues often overlapped as an effort was made to place these boys into a predetermined category. The "why" includes an examination of societal and individual factors, again, with an effort to categorize the behavior of these boys. The categorization efforts were so strong that, in essence, the media made little effort to specifically understand why 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden did these shootings. The following quote provides an example of this tendency to generalize. This quote is from a Dateline NBC interview with a social worker who has spent hundreds of hours interviewing children who kill.
Ms. Curry pointed out that Dr. Miller did not know the boys or their families. However, the generalization effort continued. Dr. Miller, led by Ms. Curry, went on to describe the prevalence of brain injury in kids who display extreme violence. Ms. Curry discussed the link between guns, emotional distress, and violence. As she asks about the girlfriend as trigger, Ms. Curry attempts to lead Dr. Miller to an explanation of behavior specific to the Jonesboro case.
As we see in this quote, Dr. Miller resists the attempt to explain this event as a result of a 13-year old's frustration over a failed relationship. As a result of this interview many viewers may begin to define Mitchell Johnson as an abused, brain damaged, emotionally unstable child with a gun. This may, in fact, be true, but based on this interview, any effort to understand Mitchell Johnson is mere speculation. The rush to understand this tragedy prevents us from truly understanding the behavior of these boys.
The dialogue between Ms. Curry and Dr. Miller included issues that were very common in the discussion of the events in Jonesboro. The availability of guns, and a culture of gun use, is the primary theme found in the analysis of the media's efforts to explain how this shooting could happen. The tone of this message is typified in a quote by Dr. Charles Ewing who stated that "At age 15, kids don't have the judgment, the insight or the impulse control to deal with a gun. Putting a gun in the hands of a 15-year-old makes the difference between fantasy and reality about one second" (Saturday Today, May 23, 1998). The easy availability of guns was discussed in many broadcasts. The culture of gun use was another common theme. In the following dialogue, which comprises nearly the entire interview, Katie Couric quickly moves through each of these topics.
The interview with Professor Kowalski was tightly controlled. The issues to be discussed had been determined prior to the interview. In fact, Professor Kowalski was contacted specifically because he has an expertise in the area of southern gun culture (Kowalski, 1999). The interview began with an effort to define the events as "reminiscent of deer hunting." Couric refers to a prior statement allegedly made by Professor Kowalski. In fact, Professor Kowalski does not know where Ms. Couric got that information (Kowalski, 1999).
The issue of gun availability and a southern gun culture was also discussed in an interview with Lucian Truscott, who was introduced as "an author and a registered gun owner" and Tanya Metaksa, who was introduced as "the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association" (Today, April 9, 1998).
Truscott was asked whether he thought the NRA was responsible for increased gun violence. His response was that "It's gotten away from hunting, it's gotten away from self-defense and it's gotten into the area where the NRA thinks that every American ought to have a right to own these kinds of military weapons that belong in infantry platoons, not in people's houses." Ms. Metaksa, of the NRA, responded.
The NRA, often raising the Eddie Eagle program, was somewhat defensive over these school shootings. On of the more unusual twists came in an interview with Charlton Heston, who had recently been named President of the NRA. Mr. Heston pointed to the heroic actions of Josh and Jake Ryker, who disarmed the shooter in the Oregon school shooting. In fact, the Ryker brothers were honored at the NRA's national convention. Their mother pointed out that "as an NRA family, her sons' lack of fear of guns made it possible for them to disarm the shooter (NBC Nightly News, June 6, 1998). This story was repeated by a Georgia State Representative who proposed that all teachers be trained and allowed to carry guns in school (Today, May 26, 1998).
Another theme common to NBC's coverage of the Jonesboro shootings was related to the influence of the media. Natural Born Killers, The Basketball Diaries, Mortal Combat, and other movies or video games were mentioned as violent media images that appeal to youth in general, as well as to Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson. Stone Phillips, on Dateline NBC, introduced a story on violence and the media. This interview, quoted at length, is an example of media resistance to a theory that is repeatedly raised by experts and lay people.
At times the reporter appears to be badgering his guest. At one point in the interview Mr. Larson challenges Dr. Huseman by asking whether he watched violent programs, including Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner, as a kid. Dr. Huseman responded that he had and Larson pointed out that the invited expert watched violence and didn't end up in prison. At one point, arguably playing the devil's advocate, Larson tells the expert to "lighten up." Dr. Huseman doesn't fall for the bait and restates the relationship between early violence viewing and adult violence.
Mr. Larson then moved to a second expert, this one pointing out that "Kids spend many more hours with their family and their--and their teachers than they do watching television. Therefore, anybody who tries to insulate TV as the single guilty party is barking up the wrong tree." Finally, the broadcast defended network television as they quote a "recent study by UCLA, funded by the broadcast industry, [that] found the level of violence on prime-time has gone down over the years. And on cable TV, some of the most violent programs are often the most watched. For instance, the premium channels, the better-known movie channels for which people pay a premium to see un-edited movies." The problem, as defined by Mr. Larson, in the presence if not with the support of experts, is cable, rather than network TV. Finally, in an apparent effort to suggest a cure, Larson suggests that "children with strong religious beliefs are less inclined to be violent" (Dateline NBC, September 25, 1998).
In a more balanced report, Bill Moyers, as a guest on Meet the Press, was quoted as saying that "our culture seems to encourage, in a way, kids to look at violence as a possible solution to their own personal frustrations. It happens all the time in what they see around them. James Wilson says to parents, ÔTurn off the television set. Turn off the Nintendo game. Turn off the computer, the Internet, at least a few hours every day,' so that kids don't isolate themselves in this constant stream of images that promote violence as a solution to your own personal dilemma" (Meet the Press, March 29, 1998).
The Meet the Press broadcast also featured Ed Troutt, the associate producer of the Jonesboro Sun, who wondered how "big city" behavior could occur in his small town.
As we see in this quote, Mr. Troutt, like many, was struggling to understand "why" it could happen in Jonesboro. Hopefully we will look further than Mr. Russert's statement that "Evil has a nice direct marketing pipeline to rural areas" as we attempt to understand the causes for school violence.
Another common theme, although secondary to discussion of guns, violence, and the media, was related to gender. In the Jonesboro shootings the dead included a female teacher and four young girls. Several broadcasts discussed the possibility that the shooting was motivated by Mitchell Johnson's frustration over a girl. "One of the girls wounded Tuesday was said to have spurned Johnson's advances, and there are reports from a school he attended in Minnesota that he had threatened girls there as well" (Dateline NBC, March 27, 1998). Another story reported that "Some students said Johnson threatened to shoot Candace Porter because she jilted him and she was wounded. But her mother denied they'd ever dated" (NBC News at Sunrise, March 26, 1998). Another story quoted a thirteen-year-old student who told reporters that Mitchell Johnson had told her that "something bad was going to happen . . . because a schoolhouse romance had broken up" (Today, March 25, 1998). These stories support the theory that these boys, frustrated over their interaction with women, sought to use power to attempt to control these relationships. Do these shootings illustrate extreme examples of male domination and control?
The comments of one student ran contrary to the suggestion that these boys were targeting female students and teachers. Katie Couric, on the Today Show, discussed the gender of the victims with a student who witnessed the shootings. Couric asked whether "most of the students who were shot at girls? I understand the vast majority of the victims were girls." Corie Brooks, a young man who was familiar with each of the shooters, answered "Yes. Because the boys were in their special classes, like gym and health and art, and they evacuated out of opposite doors of the girls" (Today, March 26, 1998). This appears to be a logical explanation for the fact that the Jonesboro victims were females. The fact is, we do not know whether the boys had targeted females. We even have evidence that suggests that girls were the victims merely because of class schedules. Without further information we do not know whether gender directed violence was a cause for these shooting. Further confusing what may be a very important issue, we must ask whether this contrary information diverts attention from what may be a key issue in our attempts to understand the motivation for the series of school shootings.
NBC News, in their effort to inform viewers, focused on certain topics. Themes of guns, violence, and media ran throughout their coverage of this story. An effort to categorize the behavior of the shooters was also apparent. Criminology theory allows multiple, and overlapping explanations for criminal behavior. Those of us who teach in sociology or criminology are familiar with students who attempt to explain an individual's behavior through the use of a single theoretical construct. The media makes the same error. We may never understand the true motivation for the behavior of Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden. We can be sure that their behavior was motivated by a variety of factors. An effort to categorize their behavior ignores the fact that this exact combination of factors is unlikely to repeat itself. This is not meant to suggest that we are helpless in the effort to reduce the potential for similar events in the future. Understanding, and informed reaction, occurs only after we are willing to accept the unique nature of each incident of school violence.
Cure - How to prevent this from happening again
We now turn to the issue of "cure," which includes pro active measures as well as reactions specific to Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden. As discussed in the last section, the "why" includes an examination of societal and individual factors. The same is true in relation to the discussion of efforts to prevent another act of school violence such as we saw in Jonesboro. As with many of our efforts to develop logical and effective crime control policy, in the Jonesboro case the link between "cause" and "cure" is not very strong. While discussion of "cause" centered on societal factors, the media presentation of "cure," especially in relation to the specific events in Jonesboro, has focused on punishment and deterrence.
One key theme in the area of "cure" was closely tied to concerns regarding guns. Many articles discussed efforts to prevent kids from accessing guns. One of the main commentators in this area is Suzann Wilson, whose 11-year-old daughter Brittany was killed in the Jonesboro shootings. The following dialogue illustrates the fine line walked by those who want to restrict access to guns. In every case the proponents of gun control appeared to go out of their way to point out that they did not want to outlaw guns. Instead, the goal was to keep them out of the hands of children, even if that meant making parents legally responsible for the crimes of their children.
Another theme was related to metal detectors, uniformed police, and other school-based measures. This issue was raised repeatedly, always by reporters. In fact, there was never an instance where a guest raised the issue of metal detectors. The few times this issue was discussed it was in reaction to a question or statement made by the interviewer. Following are two examples.
The second example occurred months before the Jonesboro shooting. Katie Couric questioned the Principal of Pearl High School. The interview took place the day after the shootings in Mississippi.
Although metal detectors were not being used, Westside Middle School in Jonesboro had made a few security changes as the new school year began. Local and state police patrolled the area. An eight-foot fence had been erected on the hillside where the boys opened fire (NBC News at Sunrise, August 20, 1998). A bulldozer had been used to remove trees from the area in which the shooters hid and the school now employed two uniformed security guards (NBC Nightly News, August 19, 1998). The issue of metal detectors, fences, security guards and other response to school shootings was raised in questions about how the schools could respond to the problem. In addition, cameras were at the scene to show evidence of these tangible responses. Although it may appear that the media is encouraging this type of response, their focus on the defensive responses may be a function of the visibility of these responses. As a visual medium, televised news media may seek out examples to photograph the response.
Other responses are less visual. For example, a prevention measure discussed in the news reports was related to the belief that the Jonesboro shootings might have been prevented if someone had taken the boys' threats seriously. Threats were made in the other cases as well. Bill Bond, Principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, stated that "in all of these cases, I believe they did talk to people, but I believe they talked to other 14- and 15- and 16-year-olds, and they didn't communicate that to anyone in authority, didn't communicate that to adults, and an action couldn't be taken to try to help those people. I think we do have to break down this barrier, I call it gangster mentality, is that if you see a kid at school with a gun, you don't tell anyone. Eighty-five-percent of the students polled across the nation said if they saw a student with a gun at school they wouldn't tell anyone. We've got to break that barrier down if we're going to stop this" (Today, July 31, 1998). This sentiment was repeated by another Principal who was interviewed by Matt Lauer.
Each of these Principals was concerned with increasing school safety. Each had been through an experience they never imagined could happen in their small town schools. Similar concerns were voiced by Ronald Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center.
Mr. Stephens, who is a regular commentator on the issue of school violence, discussed an intervention that is directly related to the culture of the school. His suggestions focus on behavior and an effort to recognize precursors to school violence. Ms. Couric responded, "What about things like metal detectors and increased security force at schools?" A similar dialogue occurred on the NBC Nightly News. Reporter Robert Hager introduced William Riceman, "an expert on youth violence."
At times the reporter allows the expert to freely state his or her opinion. The above dialogue between Katie Couric and Ronald Stephens provides a good example of a reflective statement. Ms. Couric's reflection was so accurate that Mr. Stephens response was "exactly," followed by a more thorough elaboration of his opinion. The fact that Ms. Couric derailed the conversation with the metal detector question should not detract from the fact that this interview allowed the expert the opportunity to state his opinions. At other times the reporter is less generous and, as we have seen, challenges the expert's opinion.
The final "cure" related theme was raised in more than twenty stories that discussed the Jonesboro shootings. There was a great deal of discomfort regarding the sentences these young men would receive. The reactions included anger, disbelief, consideration of federal charges, and suggestions that Arkansas laws be changed so this could not happen in the future. One report referred to "the very adult crimes of murder" (NBC News at Sunrise, August 11, 1998). Two reports used the term "premeditated murder' as they discuss juvenile sentences (Dateline NBC, August 23, 1998; NBC Nightly News, August 11, 1998). In each case the term was used by reporters.
As with the discussion of metal detectors, the issue of sentencing was initially raised by reporters. In the case of metal detectors, no reporters raised this issue with the assumption that metal detectors were a bad idea. In the case of sentencing, no reporter was prepared to defend the potential and eventual sentences in the Jonesboro case. It was clear that NBC News realized that this was a theme that resonated for many Americans. However, the frequency in which the issue of sentencing was raised may have diverted attention from more substantial recommendations made by those who were involved in the effort to understand these incidents in the hope of developing a reasoned response.
The mother of one of the Jonesboro victims suggested an alternative form of sentencing, and learning, that she believed would have a life long impact on Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden.
Many difficult issues were raised in the effort to understand the "cause" and "cure" for these actions. There are many stories to be told and much to be learned. Can this mother's suggestion lead to viable policy choices? Perhaps. Are metal detectors in schools an intelligent policy choice? Probably not. Unfortunately, discussion of metal detectors far outnumbers discussion of alternatives. The media representatives, as we saw in several of the previous examples, often move the story in what appears to be a predetermined direction.
Leading questions and issue framing
Reporters attempted to frame the issues through a variety of ways. Metal detectors and sentencing were just two examples. Some of these efforts bordered on offensive. For example, the following dialogue includes an apology for leading questions in a prior interview. This apology occurs in the middle of a sting of more leading questions. In fact, Matt Lauer appears to be suggesting that the Principals share some responsibility for the tragic events in their schools.
As is often the case, Mr. Lauer appears to have missed the points being made by these school Principals, each of whom has led their schools through an extremely trying situation. Granted, the format of the Today Show may not allow for an in depth examination of issues raised by the guests. However, the reporters we have heard from are professionals. It is safe to assume that they recognize the difference between a leading question and a reflective response. The fact that they so often choose the former prevents the airing of honest interpretations, ideas, and feelings. The following dialogue, in which the comments of only the reporter are included, clearly illustrates the effort to frame, and limit, debate. The interview was with Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general of the United States. Although Mr. Holder offered brief responses to each statement, like Tim Russert, we will ignore what he had to say. This, in my case, is not done out of disrespect for Mr. Holder.
Clearly, Tim Russert had a lot on his mind. If he were a recognized expert on the issue of school violence, it might have been helpful for him to expound on his views. The truth is, these statements were made while an expert was available. Meet the Press, in contrast to the Today Show, provides a format in which in depth discussion of issues can take place. Again, an opportunity to more clearly understand the issues was missed. It is interesting to note that the previous dialogue was sandwiched between questions regarding the Ken Starr hearing and investigations regarding campaign contributions.
An interview on the Saturday Today show provides an example of what might be called "dueling experts." In addition, one of the experts appears to act as a hired gun for the show's co-host. Jody Applegate, is interviewing author Charles Ewing, Bill Modzeleski, the director of the Department of Education's Safe Schools program, and Wendy Murphy, who is introduced as "the senior legal consultant for MSNBC." Dr. Ewing suggested that there is an increased level of youth violence and that this issue is now receiving greater attention as this violence comes to schools and is directed at students. Ms. Applegate responds with a question directed at Mr. Modzeleski.
In this dialogue the NBC expert steps in to support a statement made by the reporter. Although not specifically saying that youth are more violent, Ms. Murphy's statement diminishes the force of the statement Mr. Modzeleski was trying to make. Criminologists often ask why the fear of crime, and public perception of the frequency of crime, is consistently greater that the reality? Mr. Modzeleski is attempting to address this question. Ms. Murphy, while agreeing with his statement, refers to much younger children committing more violent offenses.
This example of dueling experts points out two important issues. First, how do we define "expert." In the previous dialogue we heard from an author, who is a psychology professor. We also heard from the director of a federal program. Finally, we heard from an expert employed by the network that was providing the news and analysis. Not only do we have an on camera duel, but we can also engage in a debate regarding the relative expertise of these experts. A second issue is related to the intensity of these on screen discussions. If the goal is to encourage a loud and contentious argument between the guests, like The Jerry Springer Show but arguably more civil, we cannot expect to learn about the issues.
The media described the events in Jonesboro through a series of alarmist, emotional, and fear inducing statements. Some are almost poetic. Others are misleading. The following are a few examples. Many of these statements were free standing and were delivered during the program introduction of just before a commercial break. If you are familiar with these reporters, it is easy to imagine the tone in which these statements were delivered.
To use another cliche, these statements add more heat than light. The above are just a sample of these statements. And this sample was taken only from cases that referred to the Jonesboro shooting. Is there a parent, whether in Jonesboro or elsewhere, who is not bothered by terms such as slaughter, ambush, and killing field? These statements add nothing to our understanding of the terrible events in Jonesboro. The statements are made merely to catch, and keep, our attention.
At times it appeared that the media's presentation of events was so predetermined that it was impossible for an expert to openly discuss the issues. At other times the expert was able to resist the interviewer's attempts to narrow the topics of discussion. For example, Dr. James Fox, in response to issues regarding the arming of teachers, suggested that we "keep this in perspective. Despite what's happened recently, this rash of shootings, it's still a rare event. Going overboard, doing excessive extremes like this, of arming our teachers, is the wrong way to go" (Today, May 26, 1998). As a result of his regular television appearances Dr. Fox, of Northeastern University, is one of the most recognized criminologists in the country. Perhaps he is allowed to speak because of his, in part media created, stature. Another possibility is that Dr. Fox, with his extensive media experience, is able to recognize and resist the effort to frame events and, in effect, put words in his mouth.
Professor Fox has been helpful to the media. As such, they are less likely to question his responses. The media relies heavily on dependable sources of information and are less likely to challenge sources that they will call upon in the future. As a result of relying on these insiders, who, more often or not are state agents, standard approaches to understanding and responding to crime are reinforced (Chermack, 1997). This poses a catch-22 problem for experts who may be seen as expendable. Unless an expert is able to develop a relationship with the media, he or she has the potential for being abused. However, an honest evaluation of events may impede the effort to develop this relationship since this honesty may run counter to the story the media is constructing.
Barak (1988) discusses the role of the "newsmaking criminologist." This role appears to require more than a willingness to be available for interviews. The criminologist is likely to be more satisfied with his or her media performance, and be less likely to be a pawn in the media's efforts to define events, with advance planning. The newsmaking criminologist should have a clear idea of how the newsmaking enterprise works in order to effectively function in that environment. Televised media seeks to entertain. Although they are attempting to cover a news story from a variety of angles, they are always aware of the potential for channel surfing. When the goal is to entertain, rather than inform, the newsmaking criminologist intent on educating is at a distinct disadvantage. Another issue, which is apparent in the many "one-liners" or "sound bites" that are repeatedly replayed by the media, is that the expert has no control over the context in which his or her statements are used. The expert may have to become adept at carefully delivering sound bites that efficiently communicate the desired statement.
The contribution of experts often falls short of the goal of increasing our understanding of important issues. At times these "experts" don't even speak for themselves. Instead, their statements are paraphrased by reporters. At other times the reporter will refer to unnamed "experts," who have commented on the issues at hand. At other times the expert's contribution is questioned and/or minimized, by a reporter with very little real knowledge of the issue. While this questioning can be supported with a standard "devil's advocate" exemption, it is interesting to note that reporters are quick to question some statements while others, no more accurate or insightful, are not challenged. The comments of experts may also be edited so that, outside of the original context, the comments are very different than intended. The "news" is created by journalists who select facts created for them by individuals (Surrette, 1998). Before entering into the enterprise the newsmaking criminologist should be aware of the media's efforts to create an interpretation of events that may not be consistent with the view of the individual expert or of experts in general. Experts who seek to advance a view that is not consistent with that of the newsmaking enterprise will face the challenging prospect of providing "facts" that are acceptable to the media and therefore more likely to be included in the news media's interpretation of events.
It would be wrong to suggest that coverage of the shootings in Jonesboro yielded no helpful information. The events in Jonesboro were described, fairly accurately, by the media. However, our understanding of the motivation for the shootings, and a greater awareness of the potential for reducing the likelihood of future tragedies, was not enhanced by the media's coverage of these events. Unfortunately, the story of this tragic event was told in a context in which media outlets compete for stories, viewers, and income. This context does not encourage an in depth examination of issues.
I was first motivated to begin this research as a result of frustration regarding media coverage of this event. As evidenced in this research, many stories focused on the fact that Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, could not be tried as adults. I was, and am, bothered by the suggestion that "adult crimes" deserve "adult sentences." However, it seemed that this message was being continually reinforced by the many news outlets that competed for the right to tell this story. I kept asking, myself as well as my students, "why aren't we focusing on the fact that these 11 and 13-year-old boys seemed to think that it made sense to shoot at their classmates with assault rifles?" It is obvious that the story was much bigger than the issue of waiving juveniles to adult courts. Why couldn't the media see this? If they saw it, what prevented them from telling the whole story?
It is important that we learn from our collective experiences. The school shootings of the last year were unfortunate and tragic experiences shared by our society. The media has the power to define these experiences. In effect, what we learn is influenced by how the media defines the story. What did we learn from the coverage of the Jonesboro shootings? We learned that Arkansas has not followed the (misguided?) lead of many states who now routinely waive sixth graders to adult courts. To a certain extent we missed the opportunity for serious debate on this issue as the media ignored the possibility that these boys might someday be able to lean productive lives. We learned that these boys were apparently filled with rage. We failed to learn how this rage could have become so active in children so young. We learned that guns were an active part of the lives of these and other children. We missed the opportunity to seriously debate the problems associated with guns. More important, we missed the opportunity to understand why there is so much resistance to the idea that guns are a problem. We heard a lot about the problem of violent media images. We also learned that NBC News is somewhat defensive, and takes no responsibility for the effects of these images.
We learned about the tragic events in Jonesboro. We failed to examine the long term impact this event will have on this small community. We heard a lot about school security. We learned very little about why, other that the extremely rare incidents of the past year, school security is suddenly an important issue. If we listened to the experts, and ignored the reporters, we may have learned that many of our efforts are not going to be productive. If we listened to the families, of the victims and offenders, we could have learned more about the motivations and reactions that were active in Jonesboro.
In short, and again somewhat cliche, the media has a great deal of power. In many ways they did not responsibly exercise that power as they covered the tragic events in Jonesboro.
Barak, G. (1988). "Newsmaking criminology: Reflections on the media, intellectuals, and crime." Justice Quarterly. 5(4), 565-587.
Chermak, S. (1977). "The presentation of drugs in the news media." Justice Quarterly, 14(4), 687-718.
Kowalski, G. (1999). Personal interview, February 1999.
Surrette, R. (1988). Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Welch, M., Fenwick, M., and Roberts, M. (1988). "State managers, intellectuals, and the media." Justice Quarterly, 15(2), 219-241.