The dilemmas of covering youth violence

When an Atlanta teen opened fire on fellow students last Thursday - the latest in a rash of real and threatened school shootings - he added sparks to a burning question catching hold in American newsrooms: Does coverage of a horrible event cause more such horrible incidents?

And if so, do newspapers, radio, and television have a responsibility to change the way they cover news?

While there are precedents for such action and some observers note progress in coverage of school violence in the past year, the ethical questions are becoming more pointed as the media - and not just Hollywood and the National Rifle Association - come under scrutiny for their impact on American youth.

For now, there's no easy consensus within newsrooms. More than most issues, this one presents editors and reporters with the stark clash between the public's right to know - and perhaps better understand a problem and learn lessons - and the influence such saturation coverage can have on copycat crimes.

When news leaked out last Thursday that a student had wounded six students at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., most major media covered it prominently. The Chicago Sun-Times, however, left it off its front page.

"We do influence our readers - otherwise why would we charge for advertisements or print editorials?" says Sun-Times editor-in-chief Nigel Wade. And ever since the shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., "it appeared that there was a cycle at work: violence followed by publicity followed by another attack."

So, with the series of shootings in Springfield, Ore., last year, in Littleton, Colo., last month, and in suburban Atlanta last week, the paper has put such news inside rather than on Page 1 - where teens are most likely to see it.

Many media observers scoff at the idea. "I think that's an artificial device," says Bob Giles, executive director of the Media Studies Center in New York and former Pulitzer-Prize winning editor at the Detroit News. "It's not where you place the story, it's how you handle the story - the angles you pursue, the people you ... interview."

Marshall Loeb, editor of Columbia Journalism Review in New York, agrees. "People should know what is happening because this reflects some problems in our society that we should address. The uproar among the people ... surely contributed greatly to passage of gun-control legislation" in the US Senate last week.

On the other hand, readers of the Sun-Times have flooded the paper with hundreds of phone calls, letters, and e-mails all praising the editors' restraint. A Chicago journalists group chose the paper for an ethics award because of its stand.

"We do want to be careful about how we report on the events because it can encourage imitation," says John Murray, associate vice provost of research at Kansas State University in Manhattan and longtime researcher of the effects of television violence on children. After a rash of copycat airline hijackings starting in the 1960s, many editors and news directors downplayed such events when major journalism groups encouraged such a shift.

School shootings have shoved journalists into a thicket of ethical issues. For example, how to handle bomb threats. Standard procedure in many newsrooms is to report them to the police but not cover them unless something happens. (Similarly, most suicides aren't covered.)

But in the wake of the Littleton tragedy, many editors and news directors have homed in on threats at area schools. For example, when a student threatened a suburban St. Louis middle school, education officials alerted police and parents but held classes the next day. Two local TV stations did extensive coverage, while two others did not report it at all.

"A lot of kids just wanted to hear the names of their schools on the air," says Jeff Aan, news director with KDNL-TV, the local ABC affiliate, which did not cover the event. "We're not here to encourage that kind of behavior."

"We always have to be careful with what images we put out there," adds Steve Hammel, executive news director of KMOV-TV. His NBC affiliate did not report the first incident, but when a threat closed another school, it reported live because the closing had an impact on the community, he says.

Another ethical dilemma: How do you report on juveniles? When are they too young to be interviewed without their parents? When are they too young to be interviewed at all? "News organizations are having to think at least as hard as they ever have [about] the operating procedures we use when you have a juvenile that's charged with adult crimes," says Lee Wilkins, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.

Mr. Giles of the Media Studies Center notes that news media have made progress since Jonesboro. When the center studied that community's response to the coverage, it found that residents thought national media had been too judgmental, too intrusive, and quick to demonize the two young shooters. But they applauded the local newspaper, the Jonesboro Sun.

"The Sun's coverage was based on the idea that the whole community was the victim of this shooting," Giles says. "The focus ... was helping the community heal."

With its report on Jonesboro, the center included a sheet of recommendations on covering such incidents. CNN gave those to reporters covering the shootings in Littleton, Giles says, and media generally covered the event more sensitively, emphasizing the victims rather than demonizing the shooters.

One exception was Time magazine's May 3 cover. Color portraits of the two attackers dominated the page. The headline read: "The Monsters Next Door."

It's not clear that media reports of violence carry the same impact on children that Hollywood violence does, says Mr. Murray. With news, "youngsters are aware that this is really happening - that there's a real consequence to the violence."

Still, news outlets must take responsibility if they are to preserve their bond with the community, says Mr. Wade of the Chicago Sun-Times. "These are not the kind of subjects that one would normally put in front of one's children without thinking about it. And I think a family newspaper has to find a new way or we're going to find ourselves unwelcome in the home."

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