April 9, 2003
Study: Columbine news coverage misled nation down fearful road
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. As the fourth anniversary of the April 20 Columbine school shooting approaches, a new study finds that the media's coverage bred a culture of fear nationwide that defies logic.
"After the Columbine media coverage, the nation became terrified that our schools were no longer safe, even though the facts show they are safer than ever," said Glenn Muschert, a professor in Purdue University's School of Liberal Arts who specializes in crime and deviance. "There is a higher probability that a child will be victimized at home, involved in drug abuse or die from drunk driving. Our schools are relatively safe, but Columbine created fear and terror in Americans for their children at school."
Although schools are relatively safe, the danger seems more pervasive because it touches us in a personal way through the media, he said.
"My research shows our reactions went beyond this particular event, its victims or consequences," Muschert said. "Through the press reports we can see how this event, which took place in a Denver suburb, affected people nationwide just as though it happened in a school in their neighborhood."
Muschert, who studies mass media coverage of high profile crimes, with attention to how the media defines social problems, said the fear created from Columbine fuels a misperception of how violence affects the country's youth.
In fact, while most believe violence leads to more violence, that doesn't track with reality. Statistics at the time of Columbine showed that one child in 2 million would be fatally shot at school per year the same odds as being struck by lightning, Muschert said. A year later, the statistic was revised downward to one child in 3 million.
Studying how journalists cover crimes involving high school-aged children helps explain why the nation believes such violence is on the rise, Muschert said.
"Youth have been increasingly thought of as being violent or as victims," Muschert said. "This perception, reflected by the coverage of the Columbine shootings, creates a culture of fear. Our Columbine studies are unusual because they look at how youth were the victims as well as the perpetrators."
Muschert provides one of the earliest comprehensive analyses of national media coverage of the April 20, 1999, shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which two seniors killed 12 students and one teacher as they attempted to blow up the school and kill hundreds more.
"During the days and weeks following the shootings, the front pages of newspapers, as well as television programming, continued with heavy coverage of the Columbine story," Muschert said. "The media focused on the cause of the shootings, and how people from Littleton, as well as people far removed from the Colorado area, reacted. Devoting so much coverage to reactions conveys the message that the reasons for the shootings were more important than the shootings. The search for meaning then became a priority for people throughout the country so they could apply that information to their schools and communities."
For the study, Muschert reviewed 728 transcripts from mainstream national broadcast and print media sources that were aired or published the first month after the shootings. Sources reviewed include the "New York Times," Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, ABC News, CNN news programs and PBS news programming.
The local media dominated the coverage for only a couple of hours after the shootings because national media was already close to the scene awaiting breaking news on a murder trial in Boulder, which is about 40 minutes away. Because of the national journalists' proximity, many of them had early access to this local scene and were able to provide in-depth coverage almost from the start, Muschert said.
"The national news media definitely affects the public's perception of these social problems, as well as helps set public policy agendas," Muschert said.
Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Glenn Muschert, (765) 494.9109, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org
A publication-quality photograph is available at ftp://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/muschert.columbine.jpeg.