One Year After Columbine:

What Our Newspapers Aren’t Telling Us
about Youth and Violence

One year ago, the nation’s eyes were fixed on Littleton, Colorado. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ bloody rampage through Columbine High School demanded attention. Newspapers responded with a flood of reporting that was broad, deep and powerfully moving.

Yet the coverage worries us. After all, we know most young people aren’t violent. Did saturation reporting on this unusual event distort the picture of youth and violence?

Just as importantly, does it take an episode of such sensational violence for the press to probe deeply into what causes violence among youth, and what might be done about it? How well do reporters cover the much more likely dangers stalking our youth?

To answer these questions we analyzed routine coverage of youth and violence in three of California’s most important newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle, and compared it to those papers’ coverage in the week following Columbine. Our definition of youth includes all legal minors plus young people through the age of 24.

First, in the routine coverage of youth, the newspapers focused on two topics: education and violence. No other topic rates even a third as much attention. Education stories comprise 26% of all youth stories. This seems appropriate; the vast majority of youth between the ages of 5 and 17 attend school and about half continue after high school.

But violence stories make up 25% of all youth coverage, when only three young people in 100 perpetrate or become victims of violence.

Second, although violence is a frequent topic, the most likely types of it--child abuse, beatings, rapes, gang shootings, murders--are generally portrayed as isolated events, stripped of context, without information about causes or solutions. Columbine reporting, on the other hand, covered many possible causes. The highly unusual event utterly transformed coverage in these same newspapers. Reporters raised questions about social isolation, peer harassment, media violence, mental health, parental supervision, and access to guns. Rather than portraying violence as an intractable problem we just have to live with, the Columbine reporting addressed ways to prevent it, including restricting access to guns and providing more youth-adult interaction.

Harris and Klebold killed 13 people in Columbine before turning their guns on themselves. In 1996, the most recent year available, 1,252 young people in California between the ages of 10 and 24 years old were killed by firearms.

Who were the last 13 killed in Riverside? In Long Beach? In Oakland? Most of those deaths—precisely because they were the common kind of teen death—didn’t qualify for thoughtful coverage. But those deaths are the real challenge for prevention—and for news reporting.

Well-documented research tells us that poverty, inadequate schools, discrimination, lack of police enforcement, easy access to alcohol, drugs and weapons, and other environmental factors all contribute to violence. But these factors go largely unreported in routine coverage, and so remain unconsidered as we deliberate solutions. This dearth of reporting on causes and solutions reinforces the notion that violence is inevitable.

Journalists can do better. Expanded reporting is entirely possible with existing resources. For less than half a percent of its current profit, this newspaper could assemble a team of three to five experienced reporters to investigate violence. What causes it? Who is most at risk? What can be done? Who is trying to fix it? With what effect? Are there solutions elsewhere that are working?

The violence team could start by expanding its sources to include not only police and courts, but public health. Public health professionals are applying to violence the same prevention tools they’ve used to understand and help prevent lung cancer and car crashes, and they are starting to show results. So far, newspapers have missed this story.

Newspapers could report violence with the same level of comprehensiveness we see in sports, or business, or entertainment. Devote resources to exploring the issue daily, rather than responding only to the most sensational, bloody events.

Violent incidents are not independent events but are linked to larger social, economic, and political forces. Journalists need to do a better job making the links visible and telling complete stories. What we don’t know has already hurt us.

--Lori Dorfman and John McManus

Lori Dorfman, DrPH, directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the nonprofit Public Health Institute in Berkeley, CA.

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