Our safe schools

There was a tragic incident at Sparks Middle School this week, a shooting that left one student and one heroic teacher dead. The satellite trucks rolled in, the news coverage began. All the facts were reported, the photography showed the human elements.

But where was the context?

This kind of white hot, wall-to-wall news coverage leaves a powerful impression that schools are dangerous. Journalism has never been willing to take responsibility for that impression.

During the spate of school shootings in the 1990s, juvenile crime experts became alarmed at the indiscriminate news coverage. Journalism was repeatedly cautioned that it was creating the perception that all students are dangerous, and all schools hazardous. Nieman Reports published lengthy criticism of news characterizations of a generation of young “superpredators.” The FBI reported juvenile homicides fell 56 percent over five years. The Juvenile Policy Institute released a report—School House Hype—that reported, “[T]he number of children killed by gun violence in schools is about half the number of Americans killed annually by lightning strikes.” Years later, journalist Dave Cullen’s report on his nine-year study of Columbine revealed that virtually every major element for which that tragedy became known as a result of news coverage was false. Still, journalism has not learned how to cover these incidents.

Coverage of Sparks Middle School by local news outlets as well as NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, and Associated Press gave readers and viewers no hint of how rare these incidents are. One CNN story seemed initially to provide greater depth, by posting a link at the bottom labeled “Fast facts on school violence.” It turned out to be only a list of violent incidents at schools since 1927—just more of the same, without any depth or perspective.

Parents need some sense from news coverage of whether, after the satellite trucks are gone, it will be safe for them to send their children to school. And family members of teachers and other staffers are entitled to the same information. So here it is:

Of the places children frequent, school is easily the safest. In a nation of 314 million people, the number of people killed on school grounds annually has been in two digits for decades. Even those numbers are inflated because they include incidents that merely take place on school grounds, such as a case where a man came to a school and killed his estranged wife, a staff member.

By comparison, school is much safer for children than the home. Number of people who died at Sparks Middle School on that one day: 2. Number of children in the U.S. who die every day all year as a result of abuse: 3.

That figure comes from the statistics office of the U.S. Department of Justice. We found it within minutes of hearing about the Sparks incident. It was available to every reporter.

We are not making light of the Sparks deaths. Every life is precious, and two deaths are too many. There were sidebar stories on other elements. Would it have been so difficult to tell viewers and readers that what usually makes news is the out-of-the-ordinary, that this incident was not the norm, that it was news because it was freakishly rare?