Media Portrayal of School Shootings

Common Themes in the Media That Influences Public Perceptions of School Violence

Researchers Aaron Kupchik and Nicole Bracyanalyze analyzed newspapers articles about school shootings that appeared in New York Times and USA Today between 2000 and 2006. From their examination, they developed five themes that are often present in these types of articles:

1) “Social Problem” Frame

This common frame provokes public fear by characterizing acts of school violence as wide-spread phenomena, similar to that of an epidemic (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 146). It conveys information which suggests that school violence incidents are out of control and offers evidentiary support in the form of recent statistics to support this argument. An example of the Problem Frame is present in articles which state that “rates of school shootings are on the rise”.

2) “Good News- Bad News” Frame

Although certain parts of an article may convey the information that rates of school violence have declined, other parts suggest that school violence is a larger problem and poses an ever-present risk to students and faculty (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 147). This frame presents a conflicting message by supporting two completely contradictory arguments. An example of the Good News-Bad News Frame is seen in the following two accounts, in which the data given in the middle of the article does not support the statement that is made at the beginning of it.

Statement at Beginning of Article: "The rate at which school shootings occur has declined, leading students to feel more safe."
Statement in Middle of Article: "Students aged 11-18 were victims of more than 3 million crimes which took place at school within the past year."

large_Columbine-Anniversary.jpg3) “Remembering Columbine” Frame

The media promotes fear in the public through references to horrific school shooting events that occurred in the past (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 148). For example, the researchers analyze 157 articles that mention Columbine and out of these 157 articles, only 33 contain detailed information on the event itself. The remaining 124 only make references to Columbine, such as the perpetrator’s motives and procedures which could have prevented such an incident. “Remembering Columbine” frames position Columbine as a sort of “measuring stick” to which all other school shooting events are compared (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 148). Based primarily on their motives, these types of articles can be placed into two groups:

1) Perpetuation of Public Fear: serves the position of reminding the public of the tragedy that occurred at Columbine
High School. Causes people to over exaggerate the threat of a school shooting incident occuring in their community
and causes parents to fear for the safety of their children.

2) Reminder of Potential Catastrophes at School: draws attention to the notion that school shootings can occur and
that they pose a continuing threat, even in times and places shere least expected (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 148).
This causes people to implement new policies within schools to prevent the occurence of a similar event.

Images such as this are still common in news articles and telebroadcasts and are often used to remind us of the threat of school shootings. This particular photo was captured during the Columbine High School Shootings.

4) “Emotional Responses as Information” Frame

Articles about school shootings often provide generalized and personal accounts of events rather than consistent, reliable information. Parents are often the most frequently contacted for this type of information. Rather than provide information on the social significance of the event, its historical context, and the frequency with which similar events occur, stories are likely to include such information as how it feels to be a victim or relative of a victim and personal opinions about school violence (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 149).

5) “Predicting the Unpredictable” Frame

Delivers the message that school violence is unpredictable, yet also places the blame on schools for their failure to predict and prevent it. The researchers find that news reports often first argue that incidents of school violence can happen at any school, be perpetrated by any student, and that no one is completely protected from such incidents (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 150). Such articles often use such descriptive characteristics as “normal kid”, “well mannered” and “grounded” to describe students who engage in school violence. The researchers then find that news reports later argue that schools are to blame for not recognizing dangerous students and for not preventing students and faculty (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 150). This theme is seen when articles focus on such things as “warning signs” in potentially violent students. Mike.jpg

Common Hypotheses of School Violence

From these common frames in newspaper articles, the researchers generate four hypotheses when it comes to media reporting of school violence:

Hypothesis 1: The frequency to which school violence is reported will increase dramatically following a school violence incident and
will remain high long after the story has ceased to be in the news (Kupchik &Bracy, 2009, p. 139).

Hypothesis 2: News stories and reports of school violence are communicated to the public in a manner that emphasizes the risk
of victimization that students face while in school (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 139).

Hypothesis 3: News stories and reports of school violence are typically based on imprecise knowledge rather than concrete,
valuable information (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 139).

Hypothesis 4: News stories and reports of school violence are constructed in a way that describes the risk of student victimization to
be vast and widespread rather than located primarily in areas with higher crime rates (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 140).

Moral Panic as a Result of Media Coverage of School Violence

Fears regarding the likelihood of school shooting occurrences usually have more to do with media reporting of recent incidents than statistical changes in school shooting trends (Lawrence & Mueller, 2003, p. 333). News media outlets grossly exaggerate the frequency with which school
shooting incidents occur by continuing to report on incidents that occurred years earlier, thus resulting in heightened and often irrational public fear. Raymond Surette, an established criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, once said in his book Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice:

“ Relative infrequency of violent crime in the real world heightens its newsworthiness and leads to its frequent appearance in the
crime news. Crime news thus takes the rare crime even and turns it into the common crime image" (Surette, 1998).

Richard Riley, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, has also noted that when it comes to school violence in general, most media coverage overdramatizes and exaggerates this issue (Lawrence & Mueller, 2003, p. 333). Due to such media sources as 24-hour news channels and online media websites, as well as the increased competition among media outlets, images and news reports of school violence are often replayed and reconstructed over and over again. Each time these stories are replayed, new details are often supplemented and taken away, adding to the confusion that the public faces.

Social Construction of School Shootings

To fully understand the significance of media coverage of school shootings, we employ the social constructionist approach. According to this perspective, claims makers such as various news outlets, political figures, and journalists actively shape the views of citizens. This is done by conveying only certain information to the public and by framing such information in a manner that leads people to adopt specific viewpoints (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009). When it comes to the media portrayal of school shootings, the four stages of social constructionism can be applied to the construction of school shootings as a widespread social problem:

Stage 1: The Physical World
In the first stage, the physical conditions of the real world and events that occur within it are noted by individuals in society. Events such as the Columbine Shootings, Virginia Tech Massacre, Montreal Massacre, and Dawson College Shootings occur at this stage and the events receive the first wave of publicity and media coverage as people attempt to process what has just taken place.

Stage 2: Competing Social Constructions
In the second stage, competing social constructions offer differing views of what the world is actually like. With respect to the topic of school shootings, different people offer opposing explanations for why these events occur. Such explanations may include violent video games as a catalyst for violent behaviour, harassment and unfair treatment from peers which causes bullied students to rebel, and mental illness which results in a psychological separation from reality.

Stage 3: Media as Social Construction Competition Arena
This stage consists of the media filtering out competing social constructions. Instead of individuals in the public determining for themselves which view is most plausible, the media takes on this role.

Stage 4: Winning Social Construction
In the fourth and final stage, criminal justice policies are determined by the winning construction. After society has examined the events that have taken place, new policies are recommended and implemented. The Columbine Shootings, for example, gave rise to new policies and procedures in the coming weeks, months, both in the United States and Canada. These new procedures include Zero-Tolerance policies for bullying, Lock-Down procedures, security camera usage, and even metal detectors and security guards in some schools.

The Media's Focus on School Shooting Victims

Victims often play the most prominent role in the construction of a social problem next to the suspect. News media outlets typically focus heavily on the victim(s) due to the dramatic element which it contributes to reports. Specifially, the media turns a keener eye and focuses much more attention on cases that involve child victims. This is because stories regarding child victims usually strike strong emotions from viewers due to the perception of innocence that individuals have of children. News stories that mention details about child victims tend to focus on such information as their past educational achievements (such as if they were on the honour role), outlooks for the future (such as dreams of attending college), special skills (such as athletic or musical skills), their personality traits, and what the community saw of them.

Present Themes in Victim News

Following the shootings at Columbine High School which took the lives of thirteen individuals (15 including the perpetrators), researchers carefully analyzed news coverage of the victims. Their analysis of the news media content revealed four important themes:

1) ID/Description of Victims (39.8% of news articles): the media concentrated on identifying and describing the student victim(s). These included such details as age, gender, and
class standing. As more details about victims emerged, journalists sought out additional information about the victims’ lives and personalities, such as activities they were involved in and
their personal interests (Muschert, 2007, p. 357).

2) Details of Victims’ Deaths (24.2% of news articles): the news reports on details regarding the victims’ deaths, such as where on the body they were shot and how they reacted to being
hit (Muschert, 2007, p. 357).

3) Memorial Services for Victims (37.6% of news articles): news articles heavily covered many of the funerals and other memorial services that took place for the victims (Muschert, 2007,
p. 357).

4) Additional Details and Special Issues (18.6% of news articles): the news media also reported on social issues which were relevant to the victim, including race, religion, involvement in
social organizations, and any other factors which could have potentially heighted their risk for victimization (Muschert, 2007, p. 357).

The Media Fuels On Moral Panic

In the wake of past school shooting events, many media outlets have "fuelled" off of common societal beliefs regarding the risk of victimization. Not only do school shootings shock communities and violate norms regarding typical behaviour, but they also leave students, teachers, and parents with a heightened sense of the threat of school violence. Many times, the media sees an opportunity to re-introduce these school shooting events for their own gain and often at the expense of victims. The following is an examination of how past research theories can be applied to specific media depictions of school shootings.

Remembering Columbine Frame (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 148)

As discussed above, the "Remembering Columbine Frame" holds that the media promotes fear in the public by making reference to past school shooting events. One such film is Zero Day (Coccio, 2003), which is based around the Columbine School Shootings.

The film illustrates the story of two students, Andre Keuck and Cal Robertson, and their general plan to commit a shooting at their high school. While much of it depicts them planning and organizing their assault on the day they refer to as "Zero Day", the majority of the film earily mimics true factual details of the Columbine case. Such scenes include Andre working at a Pizza place, Cal attending prom night, both boys vandalizing the houses of other students they don't like, creating videos leading up to the event, and the suicides of both Cal and Andre.

The film comes to an end with several scenes that show the boy's shooting taking place. All the scenes that depict the shooting are seen through school video surveillance cameras. .


Hypothesis 1 (Kupchik & Bracy, 2009, p. 139)

"The frequency to which school violence is reported will increase dramatically following a school violence incident and will remain high long after the story has ceased to be in the news."

As with the film Zero Day (2003), the media often sees an opportunity to bring forward past events for their own potential gain. Another example of this was the video game "Dawson College Massacre", which was released onto the internet site on September 10, 2010 yet promptly removed due to public outrage. The video game allowed players to virtually arm themselves with guns, enter Dawson College, and earn points for shooting and killing students and teachers.

Due to the fact that the controversial game was created by an anonymous author in the United States, and because no section of the Criminal Code of Canada could lay any charges, the game remained on the internet for quite some time. During this time, over 5200 visitors played the game within a period of only five days (Daly, 2010). Eventually, after continued negatives responses, the creator removed the game.