The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice

How Distorted Coverage of Juvenile Crime Effects Public Policy

Keynote Address by Vincent Shiraldi, Executive Director, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, at the EDJJ Loren Warboys Regional Forum,February 8, 2000 in Louisville, Kentucky

I want to start by telling you a story about an experience I had a couple of years ago that, while a bit extreme, is all-too-common, and helps us understand something about coverage of crime by the media, and how that affects both public perceptions and the crafting of public policy. Just in case you can't figure out where I'm going with the story, I'll give you the punch line now.

Coverage of crime by the media is badly skewed toward hyperviolent, idiosyncratic acts, presented out of context with social forces that foster delinquency. Such non-contextual, exaggerated coverage negatively affects both public opinion and policy making in the field of juvenile justice resulting in a populace badly misinformed about the behavior of its own children, and a body politic responding in increasingly punitive ways.

Ironically, in this, the Centennial of the founding of America's Juvenile Court, this phenomenon has America racing away from the core tenets the Juvenile Court invented -- those tenets being individualization, rehabilitation, confidentiality, and treating kids differently from the way we treat adults -- and doing so faster than any nation on earth.

Now for the story. The time was Fall of 1997. In the same week, the nation was rocked by two shocking killings by juveniles. In one, a 15-year-old boy from Ocean County, New Jersey who himself had been sexually molested by an adult he had met over the Internet, molested and killed an 11-year-old boy who had been attempting to sell candy door-to-door. Later that same week, Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death in Pearl, Mississippi and then went and shot several students to death in his high school. Ironically, that same week, Attorney General Janet Reno announced juvenile crime data for the year, showing a significant 30% decline in juvenile homicides over the previous three years.  

Reporting False "Trends"

As you're aware because you've probably heard of the former and not of the latter, the killings in New Jersey and Mississippi garnered prominent coverage, the Mississippi killing becoming the first of "trend," not of school shootings, but of media coverage of school shootings, that has lasted to the present day. The Attorney General's press conference, while arguably far more significant from the standpoint of setting public policy, was a bust, a major announcement by our nation's top law enforcement official which failed to even get coverage in her hometown paper, the Washington Post.

Later, to add insult to injury, I received a call from an eager producer at Fox News, looking to do a "thematic" story on Luke Woodham. Apparently, Woodham had a very high IQ, and had written a letter which one of his high IQ friends subsequently read on national TV, a sort of "We smart kids aren't going to take it any more."

The producer was looking for stories of other smart kids who killed — a preposterous theme woven out of the extraordinarily complex and highly individualistic factors which led Woodham to stab and kill his mother, and then shoot and kill several of his classmates. When I told her that I had a high IQ, a lousy jump shot, and grew up in a blue collar neighborhood in Brooklyn, was constantly teased because of all of the above, and never even raised my voice to my mother, she pretended like she had another call and moved off in search of cases to bolster her predetermined theme.

Public Policy NOT Based on Research or Reality

There is perhaps no other arena in which research and public policy formulation are so completely divorced as in the juvenile justice system. If you asked most doctors, politicians, and regular citizens, for example, if it's a good idea to start every day with a plate of fried eggs, home-fried potatoes, bacon and toast with lots of butter, there would be pretty good consensus, whether it was followed in practice or not, that that would be bad for one's health, and generally a bad public policy.

But if you asked researchers or policy wonks whether they thought that in order to reduce juvenile crime, America should imprison even larger numbers of kids with adults, abolish confidentiality protections across the board, jail kids with adults upon arrest and relax protections against commingling of adult and juvenile populations, or cease paying attention to whether minority kids are disparately treated by the juvenile justice system, there would be broad consensus that those were not good ideas, and wouldn't head the list of policy reforms required to improve the administration of juvenile justice in America. And yet any day now, the House and Senate will confer over two bills which have passed their respective chambers containing just such provisions.

How did this happen? How did this disconnect between researchers and policy analysts and public policy setting come about? Well, the nature of any speech is that one must simplify, so here's my boiled down version of what I think has happened.

Sound Bites - NOT Sound Policy

The media is the enemy of rational thought on the crime issue. Coverage of crime, be it juvenile or adult, fixates on the titillating, idiosyncratic cases which, while they sell soap, tell us little about actual crime trends. Bad enough, but typical crime coverage is presented in such a fashion as to tell little in a meaningful way even about the idiosyncratic case in question, offering the rarest of glimpses into the context of what motivated or contributed to the actions of high notoriety offenders. Such offenders are presented as monstrous beings, unaffected by conditions around them, and therefore unfixable by either individual solutions designed to ameliorate their specific behavior, or social policy designed to cure or prevent similar offending by similarly situated offenders.

Good stories - success stories -- about kids who were helped by the rehabilitative aspects of the juvenile court to turn their lives around are, in turn, relegated to the end of the evenings news, right behind stories of births of bears at the local zoo.

The "cure" for youth crime, therefore, very much fits with the dominant American fixation on citizen as individual actor, rigidly fixed to a social contract, unaffected by changes in economic or social conditions. The best solution is to get government off of the backs of citizens, reward the good and punish the bad. These solutions are, ironically, most neatly summed up in the inmate saying "If you do the crime, you do the time" or the National Rifle Association saying "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". These non-contextual crime occur not because of poverty, racism, inadequate educations, unequal opportunities, access to guns, childhood abuse and neglect, familial mental health problems, or any other of a host of social ills which we could address through a public health approach to violence. If they are not findable by deadline, these root causes simply don't exist in the public discourse.

The easiest reporting and the easiest public policy solutions miraculously coincide, thereby creating "sound bites instead of sound policy.

" The problem with all of this is that the policies arising from such a belief system don't work, have huge fiscal and human costs, have turned America into a nation with the highest rates of incarceration, executions, and violent crime in the Western world, and are administered in a manner which has virtually hobbled our nation's young black and Latino men.

The Media’s Role

The media's role in all of this has, with few exceptions, been either unwitting dupe or deliberate co-conspirator. Either the media simply doesn't know better and doesn't take the time to find out or, more crassly, knows, doesn't care, and focuses on the blood and gore because it is more profitable to titillate than to inform and bore.

Although the aforementioned analysis is, as I said, a bit simplistic, it is an important framework around which to discuss media coverage of juvenile crime and is a theory to which much of the criminological community subscribes, if in less vitriolic terms. And, unfortunately, there's a lot of data to back it up.

The majority of times kids are depicted on the evening news, it is in connection with violence, even though less than one half of one percent of juveniles were arrested for a violent crime last year. Between 1992 and 1996, while homicides in America were declining by 20 percent, coverage of homicides on the ABC, NBC and CBS evening news increased by 721 percent. Not surprisingly, six times as many people ranked crime as the number one problem in 1993 as in 1992, and fear of crime has been at or near the top of the polls every year since.

It's impossible to talk about this subject and not discuss the coverage school shootings have been receiving and the impact that is having on both public policy and public perceptions. Since the Woodham school shooting, and the others that followed in places like Jonesboro and Littleton, I have found myself of talk shows too numerous to mention, arguing with some pretty respected reporters that school shootings were not a trend and that their coverage was creating a moral panic and making Americans unnecessarily afraid of schools and their own children. I specifically remember arguing this point on air with Ray Suarez of All Things Considered, Greta Van Sustern of CNN's Burden of Proof, and Chris Mathews of Hardball.

Violence in Schools and Communities is NOT Increasing

What did I have to back up such assertions that school shootings were uncommon and not on the increase, that killings in rural communities were exceedingly rare and that kids are not killing at younger and younger ages?

There were about 55 school-associated violent deaths in the 1992/1993 school year, and about 25 in the 98/99 school year which recently ended, that 25 includes of course, the 14 that happened in one day in Littleton. By comparison, 88 people were killed by lightening last year, sort of the Gold Standard for all idiosyncratic events. Since 1991, the percentage of students who got into a physical fight in school decreased by 14%, the percentage of students injured in a fight decreased 20%, and the percentage of students who carred a weapon to school decreased 30%. 99.4% of the times a kid is killed in America, it is not inside a school, where kids have less than a one in 2 million chance of being killed. 12 kids were killed in the shooting at Columbine High School, and 11 kids die at the hands of their parents or guardians every two days in America.

None of the rural communities in which these kids were killed had had a juvenile homicide inside or outside of a school in the previous year, most had not had one in the previous three years. There were 90 homicides in rural communities in 1997, and 1,800 in America's cities. 93.5% of the counties in America had one or no juvenile homicides in 1996.

Kids are not killing one another at increasing or alarming rates, and kids rarely kill one another at all. Less than 3 percent of the homicides in America involved someone under 18 killing someone else under 18. Killings by kids under 13 is at its second lowest rate since that statistic began being kept in the mid 1960's.

I graduated from high school in 1977. Overall, this year's graduating class will be less likely to take drugs, less likely to drink beer, more likely to believe in God and practice their religion, less likely to have children out of wedlock, even slightly less likely to report being assaulted in school, than my graduating class was. It's no more fair to stereotype America's 20 million high school students as Luke Woodham than it would be to taint all adults with the sins of Timothy McVeigh. Our kids are good kids, they're not Luke Woodham, they're the kids on the other side of the yellow tape, weeping over the death of their classmates, just like all the rest of us.

"Context-free" coverage of juvenile crime

Failure to put this kind of context into coverage of juvenile crime has resulted in a public which is not just misinformed, but profoundly misinformed, about juvenile crime. The good news about violent crime in America is that most Americans report that they know what they know about violent crime from television, as opposed to personal experience. That's also the bad news, because television is a very poor educator of Americans

. Americans now think juveniles are responsible for 43 percent of homicides, when they are actually responsible for about 9 percent of homicides. Let's pause over this one for a second, numbers have a way of becoming numbing. Americans think our kids, our kids, our kids, are responsible for about half of all of our homicides. Now really, only 15, 16, and 17 year olds, maybe a handful of 14 year olds, commit any homicides, so that means that Americans think that people in those age groups are responsible for almost as many homicides as all the other age groups 18, 19, 20, 21 etc. combined. If that were true, that would be a lot of homicides, it would be an astonishing phenomoneon, worthy of a state of emergency. Fortunately it is very much not true.

Two thirds of Americans think juvenile crime is on the increase while there has been a 56% decline in homicides since 1993, cut in more than half. Although there was less than a one in 2 million chance of being killed in a school last year, 71% of respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll believed that such a killing was likely in their school.

Americans with the least to fear about crime, white women over the age of 50, fear crime the most, and Americans with the most to fear about crime, African American teenagers, fear crime the least. A plurality of white Americans believe they are more likely to be victimized by a black assailant than a white assailant when whites are nine times more likely to be victimized by a white assailant than a black assailant.

Misinformation Changes Perception and Creates Fear

Frank Gilliam, Ph.D. of the University of California at Los Angeles, did research that shows us how such misinformation can change reality in the minds of television viewers. Gilliam rented a storefront in a Los Angeles mall and created three randomly assigned groups who each viewed a 15 minute clip of the evening news which included, among other stories, a segment about a robbery at an automated teller machine. Using computer technology to "morph" the race of the alleged perpetrator, Gilliam presented one group with a white suspect, one group with a black suspect, and one group with no suspect at all. Regardless of the race of the viewer, all groups "remembered" the suspect as black regardless of his race, and those who actually viewed a black suspect were significantly more fearful than those who actually viewed a white suspect.

As politicians run for office and conduct focus groups of likely voters, they are fed back these fears and misconceptions, closing the "media-public opinion-policy making" loop. They then begin legislating and talking about crime, churning up the media to again cover crime, whether crime is on the increase or not.

Between 1992 and 1995, 40 states made it easier to try juveniles as adults. In supporting his "Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996", Florida Congressman Bill McCollum stated "They're the predators out there. They're not children any more. They're the most violent criminals on the face of the earth."

Last year, in offering the "sense" of Congress in the preamble to his juvenile crime bill, Orin Hatch summed up nicely how misinformation can work its way insidiously into public policy when he wrote:

Congress finds that (1) juveniles between the ages of 10 and 14 are committing an increasing number of murders and other serious crimes (wrong); (2) on March 24, 1998, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson shot and killed 4 fellow students and a teacher and injured 10 additional students in Jonesboro, AK (correct, but not particularly relevant to the setting of national policy(; (3) under Arkansas state law, neither of the gunmen could be charged as an adult despite the viciousness of the crimes and the clear and well-planned intent demonstrated by the gunmen in carrying out their scheme; 4) [this is the kicker] the tragedy in Jonesboro is unfortunately, an "all-too-common" occurrence in the United States.

That sounds like a really well-informed body politic sending sound public policy based on a rational and hard-nosed analysis of the data.

Changing Media Coverage of Juvenile Crime

I said earlier that this analysis was a bit simplistic, and before I close, I want to add some shades of gray and make some recommendations particularly of what I believe practitioners in this arena can and should do to turn the tide of bad media coverage.

First, a word about why coverage is so bad, because I actually do not believe that it is bad just because the media wants to sell soap is or completely unconcerned, and I think the reasons are much more complicated.

For one thing, covering a crime scene in a non-contextual way is just easy. You go to the scene, there is drama, a knowledgeable spokesperson --the police officer -- available for comment, crime scene tape and flashing lights. Its a situation made for tight TV deadlines. By contrast, getting context is difficult. Some of the people with information, like the defendants, their attorneys, their families, are bound to keep silent because it is in their interest or their perceived interest to do so, or because the suspect is contesting the charges.

Another reason it is difficult to give a balanced picture of crime is that, violent crime is less usual than other types of crime and, therefore, more likely to receive coverage under the "man bites dog" rule. As I said before, the majority of the time kids are depicted on he evening news, it is in connection with some form of violence even though less than one half of one percent of juveniles in America were arrested for a violent offense in 1996. At the same time, there were 130 times as many kids arrested for running away from home and truancy -- acts which aren't even a crime if you're an adult -- than for murder. As such, you can see how the tiny sliver of unusual stories that make it onto the evening news which shape Americans views of typical juvenile crimes are wildly out of step with typical juvenile offense patterns. Policies driven by such coverage are equally unlikely to strike at the causes and solutions to juvenile crime.

What can be done to improve coverage of juvenile crime? I have a few suggestions for the media and a few suggestions for you.

Sometimes, the media needs to take the high road and either not cover, or not cover prominently, stories that have no value beyond entertainment. Some have already begun to do so, like the television station in Austin which does not cover inflammatory crime cases unless they meet certain criteria, or the Chicago Sun-Times which refused to cover out of state school shootings on its front page.

Furthermore, as difficult as it can sometimes be, more context must be added to juvenile crime coverage from a personal and statistical point of view. If a crime occurs in an environment where crime does not typically occur, it is beholding on the media to prominently feature that fact in the story that this crime is not part of a growing trend, if that is indeed the case. Even if they did one of those sort of dumb "Jim and Bob" colloquies - "Hey Jim, we've being doing a lot of stories on shootings in schools, are shootings really on the rise?" "No Bob, actually, the data shows school shootings are very rare, less than one percent of the killings of kids in America, and there's really no evidence to conclude they're on the increase."

The media must develop more skepticism about itself and an awareness that, because something is receiving more coverage, doesn't mean its happening more frequently. In those debates I had with Ray Suarez, Greta Van Sustern and Chris Mathews, it was clear to me that they simply couldn't believe that there was not an increase in school shootings.

As for the youth serving community, let's agree to stop howling at the moon of bad media coverage and do something about it. The media is not some untamable beast to which only the right wing and school house assassins have access. Rather, they should be viewed as amoral carnivores, will to snap up whatever bit of meat is tossed in their direction. The other side just has a better set of butchers.

We now need to learn from the conservate movement and tell our stories and the stories of our kids in a way that maximizes their chances of being covered. That means that, within the bounds of out ethical obligations to our clients which must always come first, we must proffer both usable data and real-life case stories to the media. As Aristotle once said, the soul cannot think without a picture and as people working with young people, we have access to the real pictures of what their lives are like and why they became involved in crime in the first place. My experience is that, whenever it was ethical to do so, and whenever I aggressively marketed such stories to the media that actually did fit with emerging crime or policy trends, I have been able to get them to bite on our stories and cover them prominently.

I also think that we need to become more aggressive critics of the media to shame them and set a context of skepticism in the minds public. It is my understanding, for example, that the media does not own the airwaves, but that they have them licensed out to them by the government, involving a routine process of applying for renewal every year. What a great class project it would be for some group of students to conduct a content analysis of the big 4 networks coverage of juvenile crime, and then file a brief opposing the renewal of the network whose disconnect between coverage of juvenile crime and actual juvenile crime was most egregious. While I doubt you'd stop their license from being renewed, I'll bet you'd get page one and on the top of the evening news -- at least on the other three networks.

None of this is to say that the deck isn't stacked against us. But in the wake of Watergate, a group of conservative leaders decided that the left held a tight control over both the media and academia, and set out a deliberate, and I would argue successful, plan to increase their control in both arenas. That phenomenon is now way out of whack, and needs to be redressed. So my parting thought and challenge to you is — if you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.   [an error occurred while processing this directive]