Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fact-Checking School Shootings: The Media Debunks Its Own News Coverage

Mark the occasion. Someone bothered to fact-check media claims involving children and teenagers. The rare debunking comes after a gun-control group released a new report on school shootings. The news giant CNN dared question news coverage of the report....faint...including its own:
After Tuesday's shooting at an Oregon high school, many media outlets, including CNN, reported that there have been 74 school shootings in the past 18 months. CNN
74 school shootings.

The figure popped up all over the media including Yahoo, Slate, Mashable and the Huffington Post.  The Washington Post's article,  Map: There have been at least 74 shootings at school since Newton, indeed, featured a dramatic national map pinpointing the locations. Not to be outdone, Jezebel warned "There's Probably Going to Be a School Shooting This Week Thanks to You."

So how did the media arrive at 74 shootings?

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, culled media reports and found 74 incidences of guns on school grounds. Their estimate includes events that most people probably don't associate with the typical school shooting in the media - ones involving drug deals, arguments, suicides and accidents. To their credit, the Washington Post and others did clarify this important point (as did Everytown) but still went with the dramatic headline and in some cases, graphic.

(BTW I am troubled by any gun on any school grounds, gun fired or not, people hurt or not. I am not neutral on this issue. I am not a friend of the NRA. I very much support gun laws. Bring them on.)

How many school shootings occurred since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary? In other words, the typical scenario of a student or adult walking into a school and opening fire.

CNN identified 15 or about 20% of the reported 74.

I can't really bash Everytown because their goal is to reduce gun violence in general and not just prevent the stereotypical school shooting scenario - and their "full" report does clarify what this figure includes and they present a somewhat detailed slicing and dicing of the school shooting statistics. Moreover, the media should scrutinize data from advocacy groups before publishing any supposed facts or figures - and in this case, most did clarify the figure, eventually.

The National Center for Education Statistics also includes many types of incidences in their school violence report (see my post):
The National Center for Educational Statistics has published a regular report - Indicators of School Crime and Violence 2011 – listing among other facts the number of school homicides each year. For example, from July 2009 through June 2010, the NCES reports 17 students were killed at school. Not all these deaths involve what we've come to call rampage or school shootings. Some might involve “legal interventions” – such as police shootings. School violence in general, including homicides, has declined after a peak in the early 1990s.Youth violence is at its lowest point since the 1960s. Profile of a Rampage Killer   
As for the incidence of school shootings over time, it's not clear whether they've increased over the past decade. An older report from the U.S Secret Service identified 37 school shootings, basically the now familiar scenario, between 1974 and 2000. I've looked for a more recent number, say from 2000 to 2014.  I wish CNN would have rooted around for that number. In fact that information is missing from the reporting on school shootings, it is the elephant in the room.

I also wish the media would do more fact-checking on suspect claims that carry more significant consequences or costs. I'm not sure of the exact cost of inaccurate or imprecise reporting on school shootings here (and the media outlets did mostly report on the wide net or definition of school shootings). I hate guns. I don't see any reason for the average person to have one let alone carry one into a Starbucks. True, parents might overestimate their child's risk.

Why bother isolating the incidence of typical school shootings? It is a valuable exercise because the high profile in the media of such events likely elevates the perceptions they are common and not the rare, isolated occurrences when in reality they are a relatively infrequent incident given the thousands, twenty, thirty thousands of people killed by a gun each year here in this country.

It's refreshing to see any sort of fact-checking, in this case, an attempt to identify and isolate what we've come to know as school shootings, though, because these events have captured so much media attention. The risk of any one child being a target in such an incidence remains extremely low even if school shootings appear to be rising.

Even if school shootings are relatively rare, this is not an argument for letting someone carry a gun into Starbucks, the grocery store or anywhere near children, adults or really any other people. 

UPDATE: To put it further into perspective, the typical mass school shooting doesn't reflect the thousands of other acts of gun violence in the United States including the 31,672 gun deaths in 2013 alone, about 60% of them suicides according to the CDC. It doesn't include kids killed by guns off of school property. Thanks to Jen Burden of World Moms Blog for fowarding this letter from a mother whose son was killed on his way home from school by a gang member. 

2 comments:

Andrea Riley said...

ARMS ARE FOR HUGGING!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Agreed. And putting food into one's mouth, a clear advantage we humans had over the T Rex - can you tell I just watched Walking With Beasts?