Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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The Role of Media Presented "Experts" in
Network Television's Coverage of School Shootings

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

Past school shootings have led to questions regarding the media's ability to understand and respond to these tragic events. In attempting to understand these issues the media offers commentary and/or facts regarding cause, punishment, and prevention. This paper examines media reports in the wake of these tragedies. These reports often include commentary or other information offered by various "experts." Through an analysis of this coverage, the reliance on, and role of, these experts is examined. This research indicates that in many cases these "experts" were called on to provide support for theories and themes previously formulated by the media source. Perhaps unwittingly, these experts participate in biased, and often alarmist, crime news. In effect, the role of the media presented expert is to support dominant explanations for, and responses to, these events.

Columbine, Jonesboro, and Paducah now refer to incidents as well as places. The words are used as shorthand as schools throughout the nation take steps that are intended to prevent another "Columbine." The words have become symbols of our shock, uncertainty, and fear. The incidents have led the media to focus on issues related to school violence, youth, guns, media, culture, and school safety. Along with facts, media descriptions of these incidents are often accompanied by efforts to understand and explain difficult issues related to deadly school violence. The current research describes the role media presented experts play in the effort to understand these events.

The media is a powerful defining force. Fishman argues that "news plays a crucial role in formulating public issues and events, and in directing their subsequent course" (1978:542). Although hopefully informed by "facts," these policy interventions are also influenced by public perceptions, often based on emotion rather than facts. This "folk knowledge" (Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat, 1999) goes well beyond the influence on public debate regarding policy choices. This knowledge, influenced and created by the media, becomes ingrained in the social structure of society. The opportunity for such a significantly social impact is provided to a media that many argue is not up to the task. It is important that the role of media, the techniques utilized, and the impact of their efforts be examined in our attempts to learn from difficult issues presented as we struggle to understand school shootings.

Ginger Casey, in a commentary on the media's role in covering school shootings, discussed the effort to turn "catastrophic events into news 'products,' complete with story lines that are sadly predictable-first the raw facts, then the search for meaning, then the assignment of blame, followed by the final wrap-up, the reports bringing 'closure'" (Casey, 1999:30). As Casey suggests, media coverage of school shootings moves through a predictable progression of stories and focus. Early in the coverage of these stories the issues surrounding the events are categorized in ways that both enable and inhibit discourse. Issues are framed as the initial "facts"are selectively presented. By the time the media, and much of the viewing public, reaches any effort to search for meaning, the parameters for the search have already been defined.

Had the incidence of school shootings been limited to a single event it would not have been difficult for the media to cover the story, present a cursory search for meaning, provide a sense of closure, and move to the next big story. As we know, this was not the case. The timing and frequency of multiple events allowed the story to continue over a relatively long, by televised news media standards, period of time. As the story continued, the media's ability to make sense of the story was diminished, while at the same time, the public began to seek more than the traditional "week or two then closure" model of news coverage. Consumer demands placed the news media in a situation that may have been somewhat unusual. The story outstripped the media's ability to cover the issues in traditional ways. Television news media found themselves with a story that had grown beyond their capacity. In the absence of closure opportunities the media was forced to spend a greater amount of time on the explanation and understanding stage of the news cycle. This reality had the potential to force the media to increase their reliance on experts. In addition, the duration and scope of the story may have provided increased opportunities for experts, especially those beyond the "official sources" typically relied on by the news media.

The role of these experts is examined in this research. Overlapping goals were active throughout the data collection and analysis:

1. Document the scope of coverage

2. Identify primary themes in this coverage.

3. Describe the specific contribution of experts, especially regarding these themes.

4. Examine the degree to which experts are allowed to challenge media generated themes.

The Role of Media Presented Experts

News media reports do not clearly mirror reality. In truth, the reflection magnifies, alters, and at times ignores reality, and it does so in a predictable manner. The magnification and alteration typically lead to definitions of crime that are shaped by the dominant ideology (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 1980; Herman and Chomsky 1988). Crime news shapes the dominant power structures of society and does so in a way that distorts crime related issues in ways that support established institutions of social control (Barlow, Barlow, & Chiricos, 1995; Christensen, Schmidt, and Henderson 1982; Cavender 1984; Fishman 1978, 1980; Gorelick 1989; Humphries 1981; Wright, Cullen, & Blankenship, 1995).

Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts (1997) suggest that ideologically altered definitions are imposed by officials whose credibility rests in their positions of power and prestige. The impact of these officials is so great that dissenters must "at the very least acknowledge the dominant ideology's prominence at the center of discourse" (1997:476). In a 1998 follow-up, Welch et al. looked for evidence of the impact of ideology through an examination of expert quotes. They compared statements of state managers (politicians and criminal justice practitioners) and intellectuals (professors and non-academic researchers), documenting the ideological bias evident in statements of these expert. One finding was that state managers, who served as the primary definers of crime, distorted or ignored the causal connection between social conditions and crime (Welch, Fenwick, and Roberts 1998). The academics' role in the effort to define and explain crime was secondary to that of state managers. The potential for input by intellectuals was limited, reducing opportunities for widening the debate.

Structural restraints also limit the role of academics and other "unofficial" sources. The media relies heavily on insiders. These insiders must be treated with a certain amount of deference because they are important tools in the effort to report the news. Few non-state experts rise to such an important role. In effect, since crime related news stories are defined by reference to "facts" provided by state managers, the role of the academic may be limited to that of a "talking head" who is presented to support predetermined themes. In effect, the non-state expert is a commodity that is used to tell a story that is unlikely to vary from themes established early in the reporting of an event. An effort to vary from these themes may limit the expert's utility, reducing the chance that he or she will be able to make positive contributions to this or subsequent news events. Experts must conform their comments to the form and content expectations of journalists who have developed views, through personal ideology and/or "facts" as provided by state managers, regarding what constitutes legitimate, reportable material (Altheide, 1985; Ericson, Baraneck, and Chan, 1989).

Gregg Barak (1988) introduced the term "newsmaking criminology" in his discussion of the role criminologists and others can play in the media moderated presentation of crime. Barak proposed a newsmaking criminology that attempts to demystify images of crime and punishment by "locating the mass media portrayals of incidents of "serious" crimes in the context of all illegal and harmful activities" (1988:566). Barak suggests that experts make a conscious effort to "establish themselves as credible voices in the mass-mediated arena of policy formation" in the effort to "affect public attitudes, thoughts, and discourses about crime and justice" (1988:566). In Barak's words, a newsmaking criminology "asks of criminologists that they develop popularly based languages and technically based skills of communication for the purposes of participating the mass-consumed ideology of crime and justice" (1988:566).

Barak's suggestions are a clear response to concerns regarding media bias and the limited role taken by criminologists. In an argument consistent with left-realist views (Lea and Young, 1984, DeKeseredy, MacLean, and Schwartz, 1997; Schwartz and DeKeseredy, 1991), Barak points out that although progressive academicians generally view themselves as ideological adversaries of the dominant media, there is much to be gained from an effort to "develop relationships with those media people who share the values of the post-bourgeois future" (1988:577). Barak discusses the contradictions of news production - the area between the ability to report news and make news - and suggests that this contradiction creates opportunities for non-state experts.

While it is true that the media needs experts, especially when the story presented by the evening news is bigger than reality, the role of these experts may be restricted. We now turn our attention to specific examples of the media's effort to present expert knowledge. Again, questions relate to the extent to which the news media relies on experts as they cover school shootings, the escalation of coverage with each event, the themes that are active in this coverage, and the contribution experts make in support and/or challenge of dominant themes. Before findings are presented, the research methodology is briefly discussed.

Research Method

This paper focuses on network television news coverage of school shootings. As such, it describes a small percentage of the total media coverage. In part, the decision to focus on network news was made in light of the incredible amount of qualitative data that has been generated in covering these tragic events. Data was gathered through a Lexis-Nexis search of several databases. The searches were designed to collect news reports that discussed school shootings and relied on experts to provide information and/or commentary. Coverage specific to each incident was examined. For example, "columbine and school or shootings and expert or professor" were used as search terms for the Columbine specific search. This search was repeated in the NBC, CBS, and ABC news files. The next search, looking for information specific to Springfield, altered the search terms to "springfield and school or shootings and expert or professor and not columbine." This search resulted in stories specific to Springfield that did not mention the Columbine incident. Similar searches were utilized to gather data on earlier school shootings. These search terms limited the total number of stories while narrowing the search to news reports in which experts were presented.

Transcripts in each data set were coded with the use of HyperResearch software. There was a hierarchy of codes within each major code group. For the purposes of the present 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 duplicates, this allowed for a documentation of the frequency of terminology, repeated expert quotes, and a narrowing of issues as an interview is edited for use in later broadcasts.


The scope of this paper, written for presentation and discussion, is limited to key issues apparent in media coverage of school shootings. First, evidence of the scope of coverage is provided by charting the total number of stories by incident and network. The issue of scope is followed by discussion of the specific contribution of media presented experts. For the purposes of this preliminary paper, the data set for this discussion is restricted to news stories broadcast by NBC News, excluding MSNBC and CNBC. This discussion is further limited to examples from NBC News presentation of the Jonesboro shootings. This is done for the sake of brevity and due to concerns that the use of experts somehow changed between the Jonesboro to the Columbine shootings. The data analysis process is ongoing and it would be premature to comment more fully on this issue. However, there is evidence that the media reduced or otherwise altered their presentation of experts in coverage and analysis of the Columbine incident.

Scope of Coverage

The total number of stories, by incident and network, is presented below. The number of stories is categorized as "expert assisted" and "total." The "total" figure includes all stories, whether or not experts were quoted. As indicated in Table 1, with the exception of the Jonesboro shooting, subsequent incidents resulted in an increased number of stories in which experts were quoted. This was true even though the search methodology attempted to control for the overlap inherent in the coverage of similar incidents.

Table 1: Total Expert Assisted Stories by Incident and Network

NBC (Total)

CBS (Total)

ABC (Total)

Experts (Total)


54 (534)

33 (506)

38 (357)

125 (1397)

Springfield, OR

23 (118)

13 (124)

6 (64)

42 (306)

Jonesboro, AR

25 (216)

13 (178)

24 (151)

62 (545)

Paducah, KT

6 (77)

10 (73)

8 (59)

24 (209)

Pearl, MS

4 (59)

6 (45)

7 (26)

17 (130)


112 (1004)

75 (926)

83 (657)

270 (2587)

Minor problems with the search methodology became apparent during the process of data coding. The Columbine incident included the use of bombs and an attempt to use explosives to destroy parts of the building. As a result, media reports often referred to "bomb experts." Mention of this type of expert accounted for 28 of the 125 Columbine stories. Another factor that increased the number of stories was that as these incidents became larger news events, the media would use hints of new information as hooks to motivate the viewer to stay tuned. These hooks, placed at the end of a news report that presented expert commentary on issues unrelated to school shootings, led to an increased number of stories that contained the requested search terms.

Frequency of NBC Stories Related to School Shootings

On October 1, 1997, Luke Woodham opened fire on classmates in Pearl, 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 these 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 Pearl stories and those that would follow, 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.

Jonesboro was the site of the third school shooting (March 24, 1998). NBC News broadcast eighty-five shooting related stories over the next three weeks. It is interesting to note that one of the Jonesboro 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). Surprisingly, this was the only mention of an incident that appears to be very similar to the Jonesboro shootings a few months later. 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 24 to May 8, to ninety-nine. While we might expect that the cumulative impact of these incidents would result in an increasing number of stories, the increase 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, 1998, another school shooting occurred in Springfield, Oregon. This story was mentioned in seventy-five broadcasts over the next eight days. The trial of Luke Woodham, the Pearl shooter, began June 2. The trial resulted in thirty-nine stories, over twice the number of stories that originally discussed the shootings. Another shooting, resulting in the wounding of two school employees, occurred on June 15. Twelve broadcasts discussed this incident. The Jonesboro trial began August 9, resulting in fifteen additional stories related to the Jonesboro shootings. The Columbine incident occurred on April 28, 1999. This story resulted in one hundred thirty-nine stories within eight days. At the end of three weeks the shootings had generated two hundred and eighty stories.

A simple count of news stories indicates that NBC News increased their coverage with each incident. The total 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 Springfield shooting was the subject of 75 stories, now compressed into eight days following the shooting. Finally, the Columbine shootings generated 139 stories in the eight days following the incident. 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 increased with each incident.

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.

Figure 1: Comparison of Expert Presentation by Incident

As mentioned above, it appears that the media altered their presentation of experts in their coverage and analysis of the Columbine incident. Their reliance on experts, as indicated in figure 1, was greatly reduced relative to the total number of stories. It seems logical to assume that the media, in their effort to fill close to 1400 stories related to a single incident, would increase their reliance on experts. Instead, when hooks and stories related to bomb experts are removed, the number of stories in which experts were quoted remained relatively constant. This finding merits further study.

Jonesboro - Dominant Themes and Presentation of Experts

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 Pearl, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky. Expert commentary was offered to 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 an issue that is apparent in this analysis of news coverage of the 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.

Key Themes - Cause

Much of the media interest centered on the question of "why?" 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 thorough discussion of events. The focus of the "cause" question may be on youth violence in general or 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 predetermined categories. 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 the tendency to generalize and categorize, in spite of the expert's efforts. 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 viewers may begin to define Mitchell Johnson as an abused, brain damaged, emotionally unstable child with a gun. While this may be true, any effort to understand Mitchell Johnson is mere speculation, especially if we base our search for answers on this interview. The rush to understand this tragedy, through categorization and generalization, prevents us from truly understanding the behavior of these boys.

The easy availability of guns was another theme that was discussed in many broadcasts. The culture of gun use, especially in the south, was a related theme. The "southern culture" theme was first raised on March 25 in a Today Show interview. Although the expert failed to support the theory raised by Katie Couric, the theme returned the next morning. In the following dialogue, which comprises nearly the entire March 26 interview, Ms. 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. Hunting, southern culture, gun availability, goodbye. The issues were determined prior to the interview. In fact, Professor Kowalski was contacted specifically because NBC producers, after scanning the Auburn University media guide, determined that Dr. Kowalski had 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 opens this line of inquiry by referring to a prior statement allegedly made by Professor Kowalski. In fact, Professor Kowalski does not know where Ms. Couric got that information (Kowalski, 1999).

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.

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).

The use of leading questions is another common tactic apparent in the analysis of media reports. It seems safe to assume that reporters 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, at least in this 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. The expert input was, literally, reduced to a serious of "Mm-hmm's." 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.

NBC News, in the effort to inform viewers about causes for the Jonesboro shootings, 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.

Key Themes - Cure

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" included 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. Cure related comments were related to metal detectors, uniformed police, and other school-based measures. These issues were raised repeatedly, nearly always by reporters. There was never an instance where an expert raised the issue of metal detectors. This issue was discussed by experts only in reaction to a question or statement made by the interviewer. For example, Ronald Stephens, the Director of the National School Safety Center, was interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show. The following interaction followed his comments about recognizing signals that may point to a possibility of school violence.

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 focused 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.

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. As evident in the interview with Mr. Riceman, the reporter ignored the expert's comments and seamlessly moved from the role of parents to the reactions available to security minded schools.

The final "cure" related theme was evident in the discomfort regarding the sentences these young men would receive. One report referred to "the very adult crimes of murder" (NBC News at Sunrise, August 11, 1998). Two reporters used the term "premeditated murder' as they discussed juvenile sentences (Dateline NBC, August 23, 1998; NBC Nightly News, August 11, 1998). It was clear that NBC News realized that this was a theme that resonated for many Americans. Interestingly, experts were not asked, and did not volunteer, to discuss the sentencing issue. However, the frequency in which the issue of sentencing was raised by reporters, without expert commentary and knowledge, may have diverted attention from more substantial recommendations made by experts who were attempting to understand these incidents in the hope of developing a reasoned response.

Other Issues

Several issues related to the role of media presented experts became apparent in the coverage of school shootings. One issue is related to the expertise and motivations of "experts." Some experts, regardless of political motivation, represent the dominant ideology that supports "get tough" policy initiatives. These individuals are often employed within the criminal justice system. Others are more overt in their ideological stances, whether conservative or liberal. Others, without reference to ideology, stand to profit from certain policy initiatives. Other experts, often with University affiliations, present facts and evidence presumably without ideological motivation. Finally, the network employs individuals who may be seen, and presented, as experts. For example, NBC provided Ms. Wendy Murphy, "MSNBC Senior Legal Analyst," as an expert in a discussion on school safety.

Each of us has an ideological grounding that becomes active in our presentation and interpretation of events. The news media presents experts from a range (perhaps not a wide as we would like) of ideological viewpoints. However, these experts are typically presented with little evidence, aside from their statements, that they are motivated by a particular ideology. This leads to questions regarding the motivation of the news provider as well as the expert. This also leads to an opportunity for the motivated expert.

In some cases the experts appear to have multiple motives for appearing on television. For example, Ronald Stephens is a frequent contributor in the NBC News coverage of these events. Dr. Stephens is also the Director of the "National School Safety Center." This is an organization, associated with Pepperdine University, whose "objectives are implemented by conducting training programs and providing technical assistance for education and law enforcement practitioners as well as for legislators and other key governmental policyshapers" (NSSC, 1999). Although beyond the scope of this research, it would be safe to suggest that many NSSC initiatives and actions often support themes typical of the dominant ideology. However, relative to similar organizations, NSSC is not clearly classified by ideology.

For example, the "Justice Policy Institute" is positioned as a relatively progressive "private non-profit organization whose mission is to reduce society's reliance on the use of incarceration as a solution to social problems" (JPI: 1999:1). The ideological stance of the Justice Policy Institute is relatively clear to visitors of the organization's web site. However, this is not clear to the average television news viewer. This can lead to a biased presentation of events. For example, Vincent Schiraldi, of the Justice Policy Institute, was quoted in a story broadcast by NBC News at Sunrise (March 27, 1998). He commented on the lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of trying juveniles as adults. His comments were followed by a supportive statement regarding the negative lessons learned in prison. This statement was made by Dan Macallair, who was reported to be affiliated with the "Center on Juvenile Justice." This report, using two experts that appear to be in agreement, failed to mention that the Center for Juvenile Justice is affiliated with the Justice Policy Institute and that Schiraldi and Maccallair are, respectively, the Director and Associate Director of the "Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice."

Similarly, and in the opposite ideological direction, Ms. Jeanne Allen, of the "Center for Education Reform," was quoted in a NBC News at Sunrise (May8, 1998) report about firearms in schools. Her comments, like those of Schiraldi and Maccallair, were little more than brief sound bites. As with the other examples, her motives and affiliations are unclear to the average viewer. Research indicates that Ms. Allen is the President of the Center for Education Reform, an organization whose primary interest appears to be in the areas of "school choice" and charter schools. Her biography, found on the organization's web site, provides no evidence of her expertise in the area of school violence or guns in school (CER, 1999).

It is important to question whether viewers have heard of the Justice Policy Institute, the Center for Education Reform, or the National Center for School Safety. Of course, we have heard of the National Rifle Association and are able to filter the comments of an NRA representative according to our own beliefs. Similarly, we are aware of the opinions of the ACLU. Representatives of the better known organization face difficulties when they seek to provide their messages to a skeptical public. In contrast, "experts" with affiliations to lesser-known organizations are able to speak without similar limitations. The media, in defining events, is similarly liberated from overt ideological connections.

Another issue related to the ideology and utilization of experts is apparent in the presentation of experts with conflicting opinions. An interview on the Saturday Today show provides an example of what we refer to as "dueling experts." In this case one of the experts appears to act as a hired gun for the show's co-host. Jody Applegate, Saturday Today co-host, 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 receiving greater attention as this violence comes to schools and is directed at students. Ms. Applegate responds with a question for 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. (Saturday Today, May 23, 1998.)

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 illustrates two issues. First, this dialogue provides another example of the media's use of the term "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 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.

Several transcripts provided an example of the power associated with being the last speaker in an interview that must quickly wrap up to go to commercials. This power is not always used to extend commentary on the issue of school violence. For example, Tanya Metaska, who was introduced as "the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association," was interviewed on the Today Show.

COURIC: And, very quickly, Ms. Metaksa, you can have the last word.

Ms. METAKSA: OK, Katie, despite--despite our critics, the NRA promotes safety, rebuilds personal responsibility and protects freedom. And we'll keep doing that, and Mr.Clinton will keep banning guns, because that's his passion. And--after all, it's just one of his passions. (Today, April 9, 1998.)

This comment illustrates the ideological nature of comments, as well as the motivation to make statements with no relevance to the issues the expert was invited to discuss. Although made at a time in which the interviewer was attempting to exercise her control in an effort to end the interview, the situation was actually one with few controls. Ms. Metaska's This statement was made in a situation that allowed little chance of rebuttal.

Bill Modzeleski, who was quoted above, was also given a "last word" opportunity. Earlier in the interview he had been cut off, and disagreed with, by another expert. He had remained relatively quite after that point. The reporter may have felt that he had earned a chance to speak, or that his potential for contribution had been undermined by the other guests.

APPLEGATE: Bill Modzeleski, you can have the last word on this subject. What can we do about this?

Mr. MODZELESKI: I think there's a lot that we could do about it. I bel--I totally agree with the previous speaker that we need to do much more in the area of prevention and intervention--early prevention, early intervention. We need to get into the elementary schools and secondary schools; we need to have stronger policies. We also need educational reform: smaller class size, smaller schools, school construction, better linkages, better connections between teachers and students. All of these things work, and work extremely well. Conflict resolution, peer mediation, anger management--programs which really connect the students back to school, connect students back to the community, provide them with hope and opportunity. These are the types of programs that we need to put in schools...


Mr. MODZELESKI: ...and all schools. High schools...


Mr. MODZELESKI: ...junior high schools and elementary schools.

Although there is a fine line between persistent and jerk (for lack of a better term), the end of a story may allow the newsmaking criminologist an opportunity to add what he or she had intended to say but had not been provided the opportunity in the tightly controlled interview format. In an interview that had been dominated by the reporter and two experts, one of whom worked for the network, Mr. Modzeleski had been silenced. One given the opportunity to speak freely he tried to make the best of the opportunity. Although failing to hit the time mark right on the nose, and surely making Ms. Applegate nervous about the upcoming commercial announcement, he had made his points clearly and succinctly.


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) began to define the role of the "newsmaking criminologist." This role requires 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. This study indicates that expert statements, more often than not, are short and freestanding sound bites that are added, perhaps in an effort to legitimize the story, between comments and information provided by the reporter. The expert comments may be edited so that, outside of the original context, the comments are very different than intended.

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 previously commented on the issues at hand. At other times the expert's contribution is questioned and/or minimized, typically by a reporter with little 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 "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.

Barak writes that "by participating in the newsmaking process as credible spokespersons, criminologists can work to redefine the parameters of acceptable or favorable themes about crime and justice" (1988:577). We believe this statement is true today, although this examination of the efforts of experts indicate that the statement may be a bit idealistic. This is especially true if our newsmaking attempts rely on opportunities presented by network news media. The newsmaking criminologist preparing the enter this arena is placed in a difficult situation in which he or she is asked to respond to questions that may have little relation to the expert's area of expertise. This fact alone is sure to limit the strength of the expert's response. In addition, the expert is allowed a very short time to speak and almost never has the opportunity to speak freely.

Barak (1988) writes that newsmaking criminology should seek to establish its own mass communication vehicles. Clearly, the problems associated with becoming active contributors in traditional channels are daunting. Cecil Greek (1995, 1997), in his frustration over efforts to become an active contributor to various media channels, has proposed a web based newsmaking criminology that could accomplish many important goals. The internet provides an opportunity for the creation of an independent vehicle of communication that is accessible by the public, yet designed primarily for reporters. Reporters are looking for sound bites - these do not have to be delivered in person. The internet may provide an opportunity to comment on existing themes while providing direction for alternate themes. If the goal is to widen discourse in ways that allow non-traditional views, the internet may provide the perfect vehicle. However, thousands of web site are seldom visited. The design of these site would best be accomplished in concert with reporters who would be more likely to utilize a source in which they have a vested interest.

This research began with several overlapping goals. First, we sought to document the scope of coverage. The scope, if measured in sheer numbers, has been quite impressive. If we examine the issues raised, and the depth in which the issues were discussed, the scope is extremely limited. We also hoped to identify primary themes in the coverage of school shootings. The themes included several "cause" and "cure" related issues. The cause issues included efforts to examine individual and social causes for these acts of violence. These issues were primarily focused on an effort to categorize the shooters in a way that would allow the viewer to begin to understand "why" these young boys committed such a violent act. Cure related issues followed themes that are dominant in our system of justice. Reporters often asked about metal detectors and school security. News stories spend a lot of time on the issue of juvenile sentences. These are important issues in schools and the justice system. However, can sensible debate about these issues occur in the context of these unusual incidents of sudden and extreme school violence? Instead, a reliance on these themes is likely to result in poorly reasoned policy decisions and subsequent limitation of issues.

We also sought to describe the specific contribution of experts, especially regarding these themes. Experts were used as interchangeable commodities. The value of "experts" was reduced in these stories as the media defined just about anyone as an expert. The media appeared to be looking for 10 seconds of video than could be plugged into multiple news stories. The context in which statements were made was completely ignored. The commodity nature of expert knowledge creates opportunities for those with ulterior motives. The individual who is presented as an expert may be appearing on the program to advance issues unrelated to those he or she was called on to discuss.

Finally, we examined the degree to which experts were allowed to challenge media generated themes. In fact, there were numerous instances where experts questioned the usefulness of "solutions" proposed by reporters. Some experts even found opportunities to speak freely. Their comments, if taken seriously could have expanded the debate. Ideally, alternate themes would replace the dominant themes that have grown so stale. Based on the evidence, we do not see this happening. Although themes were challenged, they returned the next day, seemingly uncontested. We found no evidence of successfully adopted replacement themes initially offered by experts.

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.


It is important that we learn from our collective experiences. School shootings are 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 lead 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 had 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 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. The media presented expert was treated as a commodity. As a result, experts did little to expand the debate beyond the narrow, status quo supportive, range of responses typically relied on by the media and policymakers.


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