Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
horizontal line line

Link to HomeLink to CoursesLink to WebsitesLink to ScholarshipLink to Contact information

Talking Heads: The Contribution of Media Presented Experts

Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington

The news media attempts to cover a crime or justice story from many different angles. This is usually accomplished in as short a time as possible, often resulting in an incomplete picture of the issues. News coverage often includes commentary from "experts." Perhaps unwittingly, the experts may appear to be endorsing biased, and often alarmist, news coverage. The role of these experts, the content of their contributions, and media efforts to limit and/or direct the contribution of these experts is discussed in this research. The research methodology includes a content analysis of media coverage related to the school shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas. This focus on a single news event illustrates the media's efforts to frame issues. Along with an examination of the contribution of experts, the life cycle, scope, and tone of media coverage are discussed.

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:

Announcer: This is a SPECIAL REPORT from NBC News. Here is Tom Brokaw.
Good afternoon, everyone. A horror story out of Jonesboro, Arkansas, this afternoon.

Jonesboro is in the northeastern part of that state, and at a middle school, a fire alarm was pulled. When the youngsters ran outside, two people began shooting at them from a nearby woods. Authorities now say that the two shooters have been identified as two young boys, one 11 and one 13.

At this point we believe that 15 students, 15 altogether have been shot. Two to three of them are dead. Also, teachers have been wounded as well.

You're looking now at aerial scenes of that middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The shooting occurred at about 12:40 PM, Central time, today, about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock. Authorities in the area have no idea why the shootings occurred. The two youngsters, who have been arrested and are in custody as suspects now, were dressed in camouflage outfits at the time of the shooting.

The school has about 250 students altogether in grades six and seven. Authorities won't say whether the suspects were students at the school. Most of the victims, they do say, were young girls.

We'll have continuing coverage on this tragic story, still another one involving schools, violence and guns, this one in northeastern Arkansas. Continuing coverage on MSNBC. Complete details tonight on "NBC Nightly News" (NBC News Special Report, 3:32 PM ET, March 24, 1998).

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.

Research Methodology

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.

Dr. MILLER: The one truth is . . . that they have had within them, as a result of early experiences, a great deal of rage. The rage is more often than not related to very serious physical and sexual abuse. Now, I'm not talking about abuse to the inner child or any--I'm talking about gross, basic abuse.
CURRY: (Voiceover) Again, Dr. Miller does not know Andrew Golden or Mitchell Johnson, and none of the parents has any known history of physical or sexual abuse. But in every other case he's worked with, he says there is a family secret the child is harboring.

CURRY: In all the cases you've dealt with?

Dr. MILLER: In all the cases I've dealt with.

CURRY: Every single one?

Dr. MILLER: Virtually every one. I can't think of one now where there wasn't something like this (Dateline NBC, March 30, 1998).

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.

Dr. MILLER: There is usually some specific incident that triggers it.

CURRY: How often is that trigger something to do with a girlfriend?

Dr. MILLER: It's very often has to do with a girlfriend or a wife or a mother.

CURRY: (Voiceover) Though no one knows for sure what happened in the Arkansas case, Mitchell Johnson was believed to be extremely upset when Candace Potter, who he considered his girlfriend, reportedly broke up with him. Dr. Miller says Mitchell's reaction was another sign that something was amiss.

Dr. MILLER: It's very unusual, in my experience, for a 13-year-old to be that taken with another 13-year-old that their whole life would depend upon that relationship.

CURRY: (Voiceover) And Dr. Miller says that in general, a child who is on shaky ground emotionally can become dangerous if he has access to guns.

Dr. MILLER: Identity is very much tied into the ability of some folks to possess a gun. It tells them they're real men (Dateline NBC, March 30, 1998).

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.

Dr. GREGORY KOWALSKI (Auburn University): Good morning, Katie.

COURIC: You--you say that the way these two boys began their shooting spree was very reminiscent of deer hunting. What do you mean by that?

Dr. KOWALSKI: Well, in a sense that the way they went out, you know, with the camouflage outfits. They had their line of fire set up. And, of course, the children came out in that line of fire. So it's very much like sitting in a deer stand and attracting deer to come in, you know, for the kill.

COURIC: Are you a proponent of the theory that somehow the fact that these school shootings have taken place in the South is indicative of a--of a Southern culture that--that might, I don't know, be more permissive of this kind of activity, or somehow encouraged by the--by the acceptance of guns and hunting?

Dr. KOWALSKI: Well, it's more accepting of guns and hunting. I don't think it's more promiscuous in terms of what Governor Huckabee said in terms of killing people. But because there is certainly a rite of passage oftentimes associated with the hunting culture, and the South does kind of go ahead and expound the notion of the gun culture much more vigorously than just about every other part of the country, except for the West.

COURIC: What about the idea that those under 21, it's perfectly legal for them to possess rifles and--and--and other guns that are used in hunting? Do you think there will be an outcry to change that law?

Dr. KOWALSKI: Well, I would hope so, although I don't think that's the issue here. I mean, Omni--Omnibus crime bill does goes ahead and prohibit the use of handguns, the carrying and possession of handguns. But over the shoulder weapons, like rifles and so on, are not included in that, and perhaps they should be. And there probably should be more rigorous control exactly of the age of the child engaged in the hunting experience, and the teaching of hunting should be perhaps more closely regulated.

COURIC: OK. Dr. Gregory Kowalski, thanks very much (Today, March 26, 1998).

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).

COURIC: Mr. Truscott, let me start with you. . . . You grew up basically as someone who could have been a poster boy for the NRA. You competed in NRA-sponsored shooting competitions, you used to hunt with your father. You went to West Point and became very familiar with guns. And yet you say that simple gun ownership have devolved into a dangerous gun culture. What do you mean by that?

Mr. TRUSCOTT: Well, you just showed pictures of it there on your piece. The first part of the piece could have been me as a kid going to NRA shooting competitions shooting at bulls-eye targets. Then you went to a part where a young boy had a handgun and was shooting at a human silhouette target. And I see no reason whatsoever that young children--10, 11, 12 years old--should go to these tactical shooting courses and shoot at pop-up human silhouette targets or have access to military assault weapons and go to combat handgun courses, all of which is going on in this country right now and all of which is part of what I call an out-of-control gun culture that's celebrating violence and celebrating killing humans by teaching kids this kind of practice.

COURIC: From what you know, Mr. Truscott, do you believe this out of control gun culture, as you term it, contributed to what happened recently in Jonesboro, Arkansas?

Mr. TRUSCOTT: Well, it was in the media that one of the boys, at least, attended a tactical shooting course with his father, and none of the media have really reported what these courses are. You go on to a--I've been on one down in Louisiana, you take a handgun, go onto a course. There are human silhouette targets. You walk through it and shoot the targets down. This was an 11-year-old boy going through this, and I think that the message that a boy like that is getting is very strong, and much stronger than any message that they're getting from the media. He went with his father. When I was growing up, my father was the most important person in my life, and when he took me hunting, we shot at tin cans or went hunting for rabbits, not at human silhouette targets (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 is the only group that has spent over $100 million in promoting safe and responsible gun ownership and storage in the last eight years. We are devoted to safety, responsibility and freedom. And what we're interested in doing is seeing that children are taught by education--after all, education is key--by education about responsible gun ownership. And our award-winning Eddie Eagle gun safety program . . . is saving millions of lives. It is a program that has reduced the accidental firearms deaths in this country to their lowest level ever. And it's being given to over 10 million children. . . . This is responsibility at its highest (Today, April 9, 1998).

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.

STONE PHILLIPS: Whenever there's a school shooting the question is, where did they learn this? Often people blame us, the media. The Washington state teenager who killed his teacher, two classmates and his parents reportedly thought the killing spree in the movie "Natural Born Killers," was, quote, "Cool." And one of the two boys who shot five people in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was said to love the video game "Mortal Kombat." Of course, these children had much more deep-rooted problems, but they're the kind of kids some experts say may be most affected by violent images. So how can you help protect your kids? Here's John Larson.

JOHN LARSON reporting: (Voiceover) In 12 hours your kids or grandkids will likely sit down for a little Saturday morning cartoon. Watched many lately? After cartoons they may want to play a few video games. Played many lately? Or maybe your kids are into music videos. Seen many lately? But do violent images like these actually make children more violent? . . .

LARSON: (Voiceover) Rall Huseman, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, studied a group of 800 children for more than 20 years. He says the effects of too many hours in front of violent programming lasts a long time.

Mr. HUSEMAN: What we found in this study was that boys who were watching more TV violence when they were six, seven, eight, nine years old, grew up in their 20s to be more aggressive. . . .

LARSON: In your study, were you measuring the other factors?

Mr. HUSEMAN: Yeah, we looked at all sorts of factors in childhood, the socioeconomic background, the intellectual capabilities of the child, the kinds of child rearing.

LARSON: You can still see that media played a roll?


LARSON: (Voiceover) But surely all kids are not affected the same way. Aggressive images are one thing, but does that really lead to violence?

LARSON: Did you watch a lot of violence as a kid? I mean, Bugs Bunny...

Mr. HUSEMAN: I watched a fair amount of violence.

LARSON: Roadrunner. Lone Ranger, depending on the generation.


LARSON: Do you think it made you more violent?

Mr. HUSEMAN: I think it made me more likely to respond aggressively in certain situations than I otherwise would have been, yes.

LARSON: The reason I bring it up is--is because you're not a convicted felon, you're not in jail, and p--many parents out there would say, 'Well, you know, he probably had a pretty good family, and he was able to somehow distinguish between TV and movies and real life. So, you know, lighten up.'

Mr. HUSEMAN: Well, you know, I--I think everything you say it true, but why are we finding a relation between early TV violence viewing and adult violence and aggression?

LARSON: (Voiceover) There are many other studies that find the same thing. This network, NBC, does not produce programs for young children, but NBC has been outspoken in challenging the validity of studies linking TV and violence. In fact, one study done in 1982 by NBC, involving 3200 children and teen-agers, concluded there is no "causal connection between television violence and the development of aggressive behavior patterns." NBC claims studies linking media violence and aggression are fatally flawed. The network says those studies do not prove cause and effect. For instance, NBC says, if TV is such an important factor in causing violence, why do two different cities, whose residents see the same TV programming, Detroit and Windsor, Canada, have such different crime rates? And if TV is so important, why does Japan, whose cartoons are often violent, have a lower crime rate than we do? (Dateline NBC, September 25, 1998.)

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.

TIM RUSSERT: You know, statistics tell us that violent crime is going down amongst young people in cities and suburbs, but up in rural areas. . . . Brian Levin, a criminologist at Stockton College . . . says, "In the past, rural areas were somewhat insulated from the bombardment of negative stimuli. Now, you have movies and cable and the Internet in rural areas. Evil has a nice direct marketing pipeline to rural areas that it didn't have in decades past." Mr. Troutt, have you noticed--or is there any observation you can make about a changed behavior in your community over the last decade?

MR. TROUTT: I think that--and I've noticed it, that people have become more indifferent, more--I think the feeling of having feelings for death, for violence, I think they're becoming immune to it, almost conditioned to it.

MR. RUSSERT: And in this case, how are people in Jonesboro responding? What are they saying to prohibit, prevent this kind of event in the future?

MR. TROUTT: Well, obviously, the big question is: Why? How did this happen? How did this happen in this community? I mean, five days ago, nobody in this community would have believed it could happen here. I believe the same thing would be true for the people in Paducah and everywhere else that this has happened. So the big question now is: Why and what do we do to stop this? Can this be prevented? I think the problem goes a lot deeper than just the availability of guns and firearms. I believe it must be a social issue, it must be something that's happened in the last 10 to 15 years in the way we're raising our children, the things that our children are exposed to (Meet the Press, March 29, 1998).

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.

Ms. SUZANN WILSON: (Delivering speech) To every gun owner in America, I want to say, please, please, for the sake of the children, lock up your guns. Don't let your gun become an instrument of murder.

SARA JAMES reporting: (Voiceover) Suzann Wilson is a new recruit in the campaign for juvenile gun control. There she was this summer, standing beside the president, and then on Capitol Hill, with members of Congress, telling anyone who would listen that something has to be done to keep guns out of children's hands.

Ms. WILSON: It's OK to own guns, it's OK to have as many as you want. But if you're going to own guns, then you need to accept the responsibility for the guns.

JAMES: To Suzann Wilson, that's not a recommendation; she wants it to be law. She's lobbying Congress for a bill that could slap gun owners with a $10,000 fine or send them to jail for a year if they don't lock up their weapons and a child uses those weapons to harm someone or simply takes the guns in public. Ultimately, Wilson says, adults are responsible for the carnage caused by children (Dateline NBC, September 25, 1998).

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.

LAUER: Briefly, how do you all feel about metal detectors in school?

Mr. BOND: Well, let's look what happened at the Capitol. You know, we can put metal detectors in school. We have--we're a public institution. We have the right to do that. But if you had a metal detector in any of our schools, that would simply be where the shooting would start, because the common thread is the shooting starts where students are gathered, and if you gathered students up at a metal detector and you had a student--teacher there monitoring the metal detector, then...

LAUER: That's where the shooting starts.

Mr. BOND: ...that's where the first shooting would start. . . . These are desperate young people and let's look at, as I said, at the Capitol. They had metal detectors, and they have 1100 police officers, and it didn't stop someone who is determined to do killing, and don't--and they don't care who they kill. It's very difficult to stop them.

LAUER: You both agree?

Mr. BALENTINE: I agree. I think the most--the primary reason people say why don't we have metal detectors, is because that's what they know as far as security is concerned. . . . In the case of a student or a person who is on a mission, such as was the case with these students that committed these crimes in our schools, metal detectors are not a cure-all (Today, July 31, 1998).

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.

COURIC: Would you consider any increased security measures in the wake of this tragedy, say, metal detectors at your doors or the presence of some kind of security personnel?

Mr. BALENTINE: We will certainly explore all options. Our school board will be working with the administration to give us directives in this. Our belief is, however, that metal detectors would not deter an act of violence such as this (Today, October 2, 1997).

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.

LAUER: Let me read some of the warning signs that people have said we should all look out for in young students. We should be careful of students who are obsessed with weapons or have brought a weapon to school in the past. Listen to threats made by young people, because violent threats are not normal. They're not a normal part of growing up. And others, including watch out for students who have shown cruelty to animals and the like. When you think about this, if you imagine that there are 14-year-olds watching us right now who are angry, who feel ostracized, Mr. Balentine, what would you say to that 14-year-old?

Mr. BALENTINE: I would say, seek help, talk to someone. Find someone that you can talk to about your problems with, whether it be a teacher, whether it be your parent. Preferably, a child would have parents in the home that they could turn to, and that those parents will stay involved in their life. As we know, that's not always the case. I just feel like everybody needs someone that you can talk to, and vent that, and if you're the person who the student confides in, and you're told something disturbing, by all means, report it to the authorities (Today, July 31, 1998).

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: Parents should ask school officials what kind of safe school plan is in place? How will emergency situations be handled? What are some of the circumstances with regard to simply managing student behavior? Because typically, youngsters don't come onto a campus and start pulling the trigger of a gun. There is something that has happened first, some other things about the climate that opened the door to these types of tragic circumstances.

COURIC: You advise school officials about making a safe school program. What kinds of things do you suggest they implement?

Mr. STEPHENS: One of the most important things is simply to control entrance and access points. Provide adult supervision on a regular basis. Get to know the students. Work with the students. Let students know that they're a part of the solution as well. Because oftentimes, youngsters will give a rumor or a threat or say, I'm going to do something,' and, unfortunately, today they're delivering on it much more than ever before.

COURIC: So-so, students really need to be taught the warning signs. So when students like--like these kids hear a child or a teen-ager talking about a potentially violent act, they can know how to assess it and how to report it to the proper people.

Mr. STEPHENS: Exactly. It's important to follow up on any kind of rumors or threats that might be out there. Take a look at incidents that may have happened in the community the weekend before. Because oftentimes, these circumstances spill over from the community into the school, and vice versa (Today, March 25, 1998 ).

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."

Mr. WILLIAM RICEMAN: The first thing parents need to do is go into their child's bedroom. Everything a child is or wants to be is on their walls; it's a reflection of that.

HAGER: Schools are trying. Ninety-six percent make visitors sign in, 53 percent control access to buildings, but only 1 percent use metal detectors every day.

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.

I always thought in this situation, I thought if there's one--one element of this that may have been able to--to have affected these boys, to let them see exactly what they--what they've caused, it would have been for them to have witnessed all of the victims' parents trying to put their lives back together, trying to deal with just the children--the children that were--were injured, trying to--to put them to bed at night and to make them feel safe again and secure. If they'd have been able to attend the funerals and--and to go home with us and try to--and watch us trying to make a life again. I think we protect our children from that, we don't want to take them to the funerals, we don't want them to see what--that kind, because that's ugly, but yet we will set--we will let them sit and watch violence. And I think it's real important that children see it from start to finish (Today, June 17, 1998).

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.

LAUER: Mr. Balentine, you've had a little more time to heal in your community. As a principal, do you find yourself sitting around often second-guessing yourself and saying, What could I have done to make a difference in this?'

Mr. ROY BALENTINE (Pearl High School Principal): No, not really. Initially, of course, I think the natural thing is to go back and say, Could I have done something differently? Could I have stopped this?' and--but realistically speaking, I don't think it's anything any of us could have done to have stopped this, and I think it's been proven by the rash of shootings that it can happen anywhere, in any community. We have a well-disciplined school, a quiet community, a low crime rate, so this is highly uncharacteristic for our area.

LAUER: How important is it for you to prevent future violence by looking back at what happened? By looking to the past and trying to come up with mistakes and things you could do better, though?

Mr. BALENTINE: Well, we certainly want to take every precaution, and are taking every precaution, to avoid another incident like we experienced on October 1st of last year. I don't know that I would term anything we did mistakes, but certainly we can always do things differently, and we're assessing all areas of security and getting ready for our new school year and anticipate a good, normal, quiet school year.

LAUER: Mr. Bond, we talked, I think it was the day after the shooting at your school.

Mr. BILL BOND (Heath High School Principal): That's correct.

LAUER: And to be honest, you were very upset with me...

Mr. BOND: Yes, sir.

LAUER: ...because I spent a lot of time asking you about the shooter...

Mr. BOND: Yes, sir, that's right.

LAUER: ...and didn't talk enough, probably about the victims. Give me your thinking on that. Why--why not--why attention shouldn't be spent...

Mr. BOND: Well, I think it was the third day, Matt, and I realized from talking to some of the parents that the focus in our situation was all on the assailant, and the victims were just the three girls. And I feel like it's very important that if we're going to get this stopped and we're going to act responsibly, we've got to put a person, a face, with those people, and we need to talk about the victims and the hurt that's been caused, and not focus on the 14-year-old shooter, and try to personalize the pain that he's caused.

LAUER: Do you think--and I know you've had a chance to talk a little bit here--do you think that the three of you were guilty at all, and other people are guilty, of the mentality of this can't happen in my town mentality?

Mr. BALENTINE: I think everybody wants to believe that about their community, and the thing that disturbs me more than anything else now, after almost a year after our shooting occurred, is there are still school officials, law enforcement officials in the community who still think this will not happen in my community. I can promise you, it can happen anywhere.

LAUER: Mr. Bond?

Mr. BOND: I agree. We have a lot in common. One of the things that we all three share, we all are in more or less suburban schools. We don't--we're not in violent situations, and if it happened to the three of us, it can happen to any--anyone in the nation.

Mr. BENTZ: I agree with that. I think that--I remember, you know, watching on TV the shootings and thinking, there but for the grace of God go I, not realizing six months later that I would be in that situation. But we have security cameras, we have campus monitors, we have teachers on duty, and I don't think you can defend against the indefensible. So, I don't think that people can feel guilty about what happened, but I think that people need to make sure that they have considered that it might happen, and what plans would they have in place to deal with the tragedy and the aftermath.

LAUER: Briefly, how do you all feel about metal detectors in school? (Today, July 31, 1998).

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.

MR. RUSSERT: One of the researches I have seen indicates that there are obviously tens of millions of kids who come home to empty houses. Either the dad doesn't live there anymore or Mom and Dad are both working.

MR. RUSSERT: And millions of kids are watching "The Jerry Springer Show" in the afternoon.

MR. RUSSERT: So turn off "Jerry Springer."

MR. RUSSERT: Video games--the level of violence in video games is overwhelming, as I monitor my own sons' games.

MR. RUSSERT: And availability of guns--12 percent of the children in the United States say they have brought a gun to school. How do we deal with that? How do we detect it? And if we observe it, what do teachers and students and families do about it?

MR. RUSSERT: Millions of parents are watching this program this morning, and they're as bewildered as you and I am about why this is happening, this insensitivity to violence, this callousness about human life, this changing culture. Can the Department of Justice really do anything, or is it something that must be done in each and every family?

MR. RUSSERT: When will we receive this Justice Department report?

MR. RUSSERT: Do you expect or fearful of more copycat school killings? (Meet the Press, May 24, 1998).

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.

APPLEGATE: Bill Modzeleski, are young people more violent or are we just seeing this particular kind of violence more and more?

Mr. BILL MODZELESKI (US Department of Education): I think that basically what we're seeing is that there has been an--a general reduction of youth violence in the United States. As the previous speaker mentioned, I think that it's the location of the crime which has highlighted this type of incident.

APPLEGATE: Wendy Murphy, do you agree with that, a general reduction in violence among young people?

Ms. WENDY MURPHY (MSNBC Senior Legal Analyst): Well, actually, he's right, that the overall number of violent incidents has gone down a bit, and partly that's due to demographics. The youth population has, in fact, gone down. But what we do know is that children at a much younger age are committing more violent offenses. So while the numbers in fact may be lower, the type of violence is much more grave.

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.

Alarmist language

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.

PAULEY: Tonight, kids who kill. Why they do it (Dateline NBC, September 25, 1998).
Announcer: Tonight, you will meet kids who seem so normal, but kill (Dateline NBC, September 25, 1998).

BOB DOTSON: A bittersweet day for a town that had its heart torn out (NBC News at Sunrise, August 20, 1998).

DOTSON: . . . the playground that became a killing field last spring (NBC Nightly News, August 19, 1998).

KERRY SANDERS: It is Mitchell Johnson's birthday today, only 14 years old, but a mass murderer (NBC Nightly News, August 11, 1998).

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The killings in America's classrooms will be one of the topics tomorrow on NBC's "Meet the Press" (NBC Nightly News, May 23, 1998).

STONE PHILLIPS: Why are we still asking why? Troubled kids in a troubled society filled with violent images and easy access to guns. Is this endless series of school shootings really so incomprehensible? It's happened again, this time in Oregon. A 15-year-old student opening fire in a deadly rampage at his high school (Dateline NBC, May 22, 1998).

MARGARET LARSON: Educators and mental health professionals are trying to get at the root cause of this kind of violence which has suddenly become almost routine (Dateline NBC, May 22, 1998).

DOTSON: How do you mend a broken heartland? How do you heal a child? Twelve-year-old Colby Brooks was in the schoolyard that turned into a killing field (Today, March 30, 1998).

LARSON: With the emergency fire door locked behind them, the students were trapped in what amounted to a shooting gallery, between the woods, a chain link fence, and the building (Saturday Today, March 28, 1998).

DOTSON: The blood has been scrubbed away, but it has deeply stained how young people now think about their--their town and their life (Today, March 26, 1998).

JIM AVILA: It was like a mass ex--execution, an ambush. Children lured to their deaths by a fire drill (Today, March 25, 1998).

ED RABEL: The front page news this morning in Jonesboro--images of the dead on every doorstep (Today, March 25, 1998).

GEORGE LEWIS: . . . slaughter of schoolchildren in Arkansas (NBC Nightly News, March 25, 1998).

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.

horizontal line

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

horizontal line