Tales out of school
How journalism damages education with bad information
Steve Mulvenon retired from the Washoe County School District two years ago. While he worked there he was communications director—that is, he was the chief spokesperson for the district and hand-holder for reporters.
From 1995 to 2000, there was a spate of school shootings around the nation, and each time one happened, local reporters would flood Mulvenon’s operation to “localize” the story. Then there were the times when a Washoe student would take a weapon to school, and it would be covered by local reporters like a presidential assassination. Little of this news coverage put school violence in context by reporting the rarity of school shootings and other violence on school grounds. News outlets were unnecessarily raising the anxiety level of parents, students and teachers.
“I guess I was resentful that people were trying to tie the local school district to an event that happened hundreds or thousands of miles away,” Mulvenon told me recently.
He became so exasperated by the bad news coverage that he considered ending his cooperation with those kinds of stories.
And that was just one myth about schools. Mulvenon and his colleagues in similar positions at thousands of school districts around the nation had to deal with one myth after another. Public policy myths do a lot of damage in areas from agriculture to zoology, but no field is more victimized by them than education.
In the years leading up to the cluster of school shootings, journalists had been busy characterizing the young as monsters. In its Winter 1998 edition, Nieman Reports—a publication of a journalism foundation at Harvard—devoted considerable space to the invention of the “superpredator” young:
“The latest ‘theme’ was prompted by Northeastern University criminologist James Fox in 1995. Noting a rise in arrests of juveniles for violent crimes in the late 1980s, Fox combined this observation with the expectation of a substantial growth in the teenaged population during the next 15 years. Unless things changed, so the thesis went, an influx of violent and predatory youth would plague the country shortly after the turn of the century.”
Conservative writer John DiIulio also pushed the notion, characterizing the young as essentially soulless: “It’s as though our society had bred a new genetic strain, the child murderer who feels no remorse.”
There are always psychopaths of all ages to plague society, of course, but these critics were predicting something massive—270,000 “superpredators” were in the pipeline. Soon others, including liberals like Susan Estrich, were jumping on the bandwagon. And so were journalists. “They are called superpredators,” according to the Tampa Tribune in May 1996. “They are not here yet, but they are predicted to be a plague upon the United States in the next decade.” The notion crossed the Atlantic. “Remorseless brutality” would characterize the “invasion of the superpredators,” according to the London Times.
“As University of California criminologist Franklin Zimring commented at the time, DiIulio didn’t address the implication of 6 percent of all juveniles being superpredators, nor did he help to unravel the mystery of what it meant to already have almost 2 million of them among us,” Nieman’s report observed. “This, after all, is twice as many kids as are referred annually to all the juvenile courts in the country.”
Actually, as Nieman reported, “arrests of juveniles for violent crime began falling shortly after [Fox’s] dire predictions,” but journalists never checked actual figures. So when the first school shooting of the late 1990s cluster happened in Seattle in 1995, both reporters and public were primed to think in a particular way.
In a numbing series, the school shootings came one after the other in places like Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Alaska; Edinboro, Penn.; and Springfield, Ore. Each time the satellite trucks rolled in, the wall-to-wall coverage began, and a light of white hot intensity was thrown on each shooting. In living rooms, misinformation flowed over viewers. Rarely if ever did the journalists on the scene report how atypical these incidents were. And rarely if ever did they explore the idea that overheated news coverage caused copycats, to explain the sudden cluster.
Then came Columbine.
To all the false data that had been produced by the earlier shootings, Columbine news coverage added a jackpot of misinformation. Nearly every major piece of information we “know” about Columbine is wrong, even including its location. It didn’t happen in Littleton, Colo. During the long hours when the school was closed off, journalists put any and all information on the air unscreened and uncooked.
It is now known that the two perpetrators were not loners who targeted jocks. There was a “trench coat” group at the school, but it was made up of good kids, and the two shooters weren’t among them. Those killed were not the targets—the entire school was, because it was planned not as a school shooting but as a bombing. The shooting began when the bombs failed. Diane Sawyer reported without any evidence that “some of these Goths may have killed before.” Charlton Heston said the tragedy could have been prevented if there had been a guard with a gun. There was.
It took years for the truth to come out about what actually happened at Columbine, and there was a costly consequence. Legislatures started passing punitive new laws and school districts started diverting money to security before getting good information.
When it was over, the school system was left with a reputation for violence, which is nonsense. Violence on school grounds has been declining for decades, to a point that it barely registers in traditional measures anymore. But the policy myth was so powerful that even those who created it started to believe it. In addition, once we all “know” something, it develops a constituency. People become committed to its “solution.” One reason why dispelling policy myths can be difficult to do is that their preservation often serves someone’s agenda.
At the time of Columbine, I was reporting for KOLO News in Reno. I pitched a story about how school shootings and other kinds of serious school violence were very rare. The idea went so sharply against the grain of conventional wisdom that our assignment editor wouldn’t let me do it unless I proved it to him. I had to go home and pick up a file I had been keeping on school safety during the spate of earlier school shootings in order to make my case before I was permitted to do the piece.
In my report, I noted that of all the places children frequent, school is by far the safest—certainly safer than the home. As many children are killed at home by parents or guardians or whomever about every three days, I said, as were killed at Columbine. Each day students leave violent homes for the safety of schools.
I also quoted a report from the Justice Policy Institute (which had compared school violence statistics with figures from the National Climatic Data Center): “To give the reader a sense of the idiosyncratic nature of these events, the number of children killed by gun violence in schools is about half the number of Americans killed annually by lightning strikes.” (There were 88 lightning deaths in 1997, 40 deaths on school grounds in school year 1997-98.) As soon as the story hit the air, I received an irate phone call from a Reno High School teacher who berated me for making such a comparison. Later another teacher told me the reaction was easily explainable—teachers have become committed to getting greater security in their workplaces, and my report could undercut them. Teachers, it seemed, had a stake in fostering the notion of violent schools in order to get more security around themselves and students. I later checked and found that Reno High, too, is a school where violence is rare. But there was no un-ringing the bell that created the myth.
With students effectively demonized and their schoolhouses regarded as unsafe, opponents of public education were able to go after the system itself.
Joe Nathan /CatholicEducation.org: Thousands of parents and educators are voting with their feet.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: And school choice is an important way to hold schools accountable for success because when people vote with their feet you know that it’s real, and it’s pretty obvious which direction they are going.
For years we’ve heard that there is an exodus of students from public to private schools. It helped establish the talking point of our “failing schools.” All over the U.S. politicians have promoted this myth.
In fact, no such migration ever happened. In 2000, when that perception was being pushed by critics of public education in the presidential campaign and journalism was swallowing it whole, New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein checked the actual figures (something other journalists should have done) and found the opposite—parents and students were actually leaving private schools for public schools. He reported that “the proportion of students in private schools has been falling nationwide.” The decline was uniform, with the numbers down in upper, middle, and lower income groups.
That journalists, by playing games with the facts, were actually affecting public policies and influencing lawmaking and thus hurting good people who depend on us for good information, seemed never to occur to us.
The migration trend is still holding. U.S. Department of Education figures show that between 2006 to 2010 private school enrollments dropped by about 174,000. Public school enrollments increased by 718,000.
Private schools have never been very popular. At its height in the mid-1980s, private school enrollment was less than 13 percent.
Except for a slight spike of less than a percentage point in 2001-2002, private school enrollment has been declining steadily since the 21st century got underway in January 2001. Private school enrollment from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade dropped 12.7 percent from 2001-02 to 2009-10 according to Condition of Education, a report ordered by Congress. In the fall of 2001, 6.3 million students were enrolled in private schools. By the fall of 2009, that figure was down to 5.5 million, even as the population grows.
Nevertheless, the migration from public to private schools is something we all “know” to be true, so it has impact on public policy. Together with the demonization of students and the portrayal of schools as dangerous, the flight from public education makes schools a problem to be solved.
Education analyst Richard Rothstein says former vice president Richard Cheney’s idea that there was once a “former glory” of schools is part of the problem, reflecting “an American myth, repeated in every decade since the beginning of the 20th century—public schools were always better in the past than they were today. Around 1920, a professor got tired of hearing this nonsense, so he dug up the test that [19th century education reform leader] Horace Mann had administered in the 1840s and administered it to students nationwide. Of course, students in the 1920s outperformed those in the 1840s, to the pundits’ great surprise.” (Rothstein’s book The Way We Were? documents the non-existence of that golden age.)
Local reporters are sometimes assigned to the schools beat, but they are rarely given the time and resources to do the job well. Cranking it out has become SOP in newsrooms. And they are always expected to sidetrack themselves to cover the latest education policy fads, including viewing with alarm our failing schools. “Only 20 years ago, the phrase was hardly uttered: ‘Failing schools’ appeared just 13 times in mainstream news accounts in January 1992, according to Nexis,” Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi recently wrote. The schools have only gotten better since then, by every reliable measure.
Garbage in, garbage out
When bad information guides governance, bad policies result. “Falsely to diagnose the trouble is to move toward the wrong remedies, and the wrong remedies will worsen the disease,” wrote journalist I.F. Stone in 1970.
With journalism portraying parents pulling their children out of dangerous schools filled with psychopaths, the resulting policies are going to be flawed.
During the cluster of school shootings, school systems and law enforcement around the nation bought new high tech security gear, provided for training, set up procedures for dangerous situations. Much of it was designed with information gleaned from media coverage in mind.
But over time, educators and police learned that many of the premises on which they created their policies and procedures were faulty. The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education produced a May 2002 report that discredited much of what school officials thought they “knew” about those dangerous situations. (It may have been the first time that a Secret Service investigation was needed to find out the truth about a major public policy issue that journalism bungled.) A reporter named Dave Cullen who stayed with the Columbine story for nine years—long after others had dropped it—published an influential book that found nearly every conclusion reached by journalism at the time of the tragedy was wrong. As better information emerged after the school shootings subsided, school systems redesigned the training, changed the procedures, and rewrote the plans they had devised to deal with school shootings and other violence. Legislatures have been less willing to correct their mistakes—it’s a brave lawmaker who tries to repeal anti-crime laws. So students must continue living with laws based on bad information.
The same kind of thing happened outside law enforcement and education circles. Community activists, acting on the scapegoats journalism provided, went after “causes” that didn’t exist. New York journalist Will Leitch wrote in refreshing fashion, “Everybody had something to say, even though none of them had the slightest idea what they were talking about. I was one of them. I suspect you were, too.”
One of them was Jody Ruggiero, a Reno parent and school board member. She had already been proselytizing the notion of some kinds of music as moral evils before Columbine. After that tragedy, she quickly hopped on the bandwagon of folks who blamed the influence of Marilyn Manson music on the young killers for the massacre. She led an effort to cancel a Reno Manson concert. “I don’t care what your religion is,” she said. “This is not about censorship. This is about public safety.” Even Gov. Kenny Guinn, who in other disaster situations resisted panicky actions, reluctantly joined the effort to stop the concert. In the end, the concert was cancelled.
There was one problem with all this. The two Columbine killers disliked Marilyn Manson music. The linkage between Marilyn Manson and Columbine was all in the heads of Ruggiero and her allies.
That linkage of pop culture with the school shootings along with pop psychology proved to be an unending source of what had become harassment of students for their habits. Playing Dungeons & Dragons could get kids in trouble with parents or schools. In Clark County, girls in two schools were arrested for writing lists of people they disliked.
It should be noted that at the time these education policy myths were being formed, the correct information was available to reporters. Indeed, many of them wrote it. But it was usually in sidebar form, tucked inside newspapers or deep in newscasts that led with the most provocative information. Or it was delayed. Time magazine ran a piece (“The Perception Gap”) a year after Columbine. The freakish rarity of school violence needed to be a repeated theme in main stories. Instead, journalism converted the exceptions into the norms. Parents are fleeing from dangerous schools filled with psychopaths.
Far more saleable in the journalism marketplace were stories like an inflammatory Las Vegas Review-Journal story (“Anniversary of Columbine shooting raises fears”) published as the one-year anniversary of Columbine neared. It contained plenty of emotionally loaded terms (“massacre,” “unease,” “rampage,” “amok”) suggesting that nothing about restraint had been learned in that year. The story linked minor incidents at local and out-of-state schools with school shootings. “Unfortunately, the massacre mania is happening across the county,” it reported as the cluster died out. Or to bring it directly home in words parents and students must have loved, “Rumors this week had Greenspun Junior High and Green Valley High as targets of violence.” Nowhere in the 842-word story was room found for actual statistics on school violence either in Las Vegas or nationally. It was all anecdotal.
Television is a special problem. It rarely even attempts to address the nuances of education. While broadcast entities engage in hand-wringing about 24-hour news—usually after some spectacular blunder is exposed—they never change the practices that lead it into errors when the alternative is inconvenience or difficult decisions that might create competitive disadvantages. The Nieman conclusion in 1998 still applies: “There is little doubt that television coverage contributes to the public hysteria about youth crime.” Television spokespeople never use their high-publicity forums to call for ways to “solve the problems” of television.
The 270,000 “superpredators” have never appeared, only the usual freakish exceptions. Nor has the exodus from public schools materialized, or the wave of violence. But they all appeared real enough in journalism, and they continue to plague education to this day.
Steve Mulvenon decided not to stop cooperating with reporters on “gun in backpack disease” stories (as cartoonist Tom Toles describes them). He went on helping, giving facts and figures, providing people for reporters to interview and doing interviews himself. Sometimes, Mulvenon said, he was successful in getting some context into stories.
On March 16, 2006, at Pine Middle School, a local school shooting happened. The systems that had been put in place after the late 1990s cluster worked well. But few news stories provided broader context than the day’s event.
Nine years earlier, a plane had crashed on the playground at Pine Middle School. The crash did not mean that schools were now at wider risk of plane crashes.