NEA Chief Pleads for Calm on Columbine Anniversary

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - Broadcast news agencies are getting a lesson in journalism ethics from the head of a teachers union concerned that coverage of the upcoming anniversary of the Columbine school shooting will exploit the emotional wounds of the victims and their families.

In an open letter "from the classroom to the newsroom," National Education Association President Bob Chase pleaded for broadcast producers to show respect for school violence victims. Chase's letter is in anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the shooting spree in which Littleton, CO, students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took the lives of 12 fellow students and one teacher before killing themselves.

Chase said that in anticipation of the April 20th anniversary, the NEA "wishes to make a respectful request of our fellow educators in the media whose capacity to teach and inform is virtually unmatched."

"We ask that you reflect upon, as we have, new information provided about the consequences of certain types of media coverage of children and school staff in trauma," Chase added, before citing a number of issues he believes newsroom editors and producers would do well to consider before broadcasting the Columbine images already ingrained in the minds of viewers.

"Mental health officials from the Columbine community report that the constant repetition of the images from April 20, 1999, are having a profound, hurtful impact on the community that is working so hard to heal," Chase said. "Such a focus also fails to accurately reflect the strength, growth and healing of a community that has endured so much."

Rather than rushing to get an interview with a student in the aftermath of such a tragedy, Chase suggests that reporters focus their attention on stories highlighting the consequences of resorting to violence.

"Media can avoid being used in demonstrations of copycat behaviors by stressing the consequences for threats and emphasizing the community's support for strict enforcement and prosecution of those who would seek to victimize children."

Prosecution of criminal acts has been a longstanding platform of groups like the National Rifle Association, which has been the target of the Clinton Administration's verbal attacks and others pressing for more gun control, contending that schools have been the scene of increased acts of violence.

But Chase offers that graphic images on television have given the wrong impression of how safe the classroom really is.

"Repetition of violent images provides a false impression of schools and how safe they really are. School shootings receive broad coverage precisely because they are so rare. This fact gets lost under the sheer weight of constant coverage," Chase said. "In truth, according to the Justice Policy Institute - a Washington, D.C., based think tank - schools are the safest places children can be and that 99 percent of children's deaths occur away from school."

The notion of an "increase" in gun violence has also been refuted by Northeastern University Criminal Justice Professor James Fox, who says modern news coverage puts viewers in the middle of such tragedies, thereby amplifying a misconception.

The series of mass, public shootings in 1999 was nothing new, according to Fox's research of similar events over a 20-year period.

In an August, 1999 interview, Fox told that what seems like a rise in the number of public shootings is simply a myth. And the reason, he believes, for the perceived "epidemic" of public shootings is modern television reporting.

The difference between mass, public violent acts of today and those of 20 years ago, Fox suggests, is that modern technology and journalism puts the viewer right at the scene of a crime. "When you're in the midst of a string of shootings you feel like it's an epidemic," Fox said. "We have a way of forgetting about a wave of shootings we've had in previous years."

On average, Fox's study shows that between 1976 and 1997, there are 23.7 incidents per year committed by 34.3 offenders who claim the lives of 114.6 people every year. Fox's research shows that in the 21-year span studied, 755 offenders claimed the lives of 2,522 victims.

The pinnacle year for mass murders between 1976 and 1997, Fox's research shows, was 1977, when 38 offenders committed 32 crimes that took 141 lives. The year with the lowest number of mass killings in the 21-year period was 1994, with 17 incidents by 31 offenders claiming 74 victims.

Despite public perceptions to the contrary, school shootings aren't on the rise, Fox suggests, adding that live television coverage puts the viewer in the middle of the drama.

Buford Furrow, the alleged trigger-man in the Grenada Hills, CA, Jewish community center shooting in 1999 reportedly told police his mission was to send a "wake up call," that it's time to "kill Jews." Furrow had no trouble getting his message to the masses with the help of at least three cable news outlets providing wall-to-wall, ground-to-air coverage of the aftermath.

From ground level reporters "live" on the scene to helicopters hovering above, viewers were treated to anti-sniper units perched on rooftops, police escorting chains of children across the street and the emotion of distressed family members fearing the worst for relatives in the trauma of tragedy.

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris also gained instant fame for a shooting spree and suicide mission that left 13 victims dead.

Intertwined between the hard news sights and sounds during such instances, one can expect, and perhaps recall, sound bites from those directly involved or others reacting to the news, sometimes with an agenda.

"Once again our nation has been shaken and our hearts torn by an act of gun violence," President Bill Clinton said in responding to the shooting spree at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center.

But the latest string of shootings "does not signal a new trend in America," Fox said.

"The difference between now and, say, the middle 1980s, is that when it happens now we have many news channels that will cover it live and so you're put right in the middle of the drama. Back then, we weren't put in the middle of the drama . . . and we didn't have the same approach to news reporting. We didn't have CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News Channel." CNN, the pioneer of 24-hour news, was still in its infancy in the 1980s.

Chase contends that teachers and reporters "have a role to play in making sure our communities and schools are safe. . . . Focusing on lurid details and motivations of perpetrators can contribute to copycat behaviors, according to the Centers for Disease Control."

"There is evidence that many perpetrators of recent incidents of mass violence harbored fantasies about sending a message to the nation through the media," Chase said, citing evidence that copycat criminals sometimes use "information they gleaned through the media" to carry out their own violent acts.