The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Shootings & Media Myth

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 13, 2009

Some of the big stories in recent days have been about various public shootings – one in an Illinois church, another in a school in Germany, and a third in an Alabama shooting spree. The media is making a really big deal out of all of these incidents.

Please understand, I do not mean to belittle the horror and loss of those unfortunate enough to have been directly affected by these events, but there is such a thing as over-emphasis on these things. Reading some of these headlines and listening to the media drone on and on about these tragedies has the effect of magnifying the apparent danger of shootings.

The problem with such wall-to-wall media coverage of such shootings is that it, either intentionally or not, gives people the impression that crazed gunmen are laying in wait to murder innocent people at school, church, or in the public square. The reaction from the media and those who pay too much attention to these stories is overblown and way out of proportion to reality.

For example, I teach at a high school, and in the couple of years after the Columbine tragedy, the administration at my school went a little nuts on the whole security question. I was involved in that work, and in retrospect I can tell you that it was little more than an exercise in collective hysteria. In fact, a wave of such hysteria seemed to sweep over the country over the years regarding fears of school shootings.

The hysteria seemed to climax a few years ago when filmmaker Michael Moore released his movie, “Bowling for Columbine”, which (in my opinion) played upon these fears to push a political agenda.

bowling for columbine

But how much danger is there really to you as an individual and society at large from this apparent epidemic of gun-wielding maniacs? Very little, if you look at the statistics & evidence.

For example, according to the Youth Violence Project, the perception of gun violence at schools as projected by the media and activists is in no way a trustworthy reflection of reality…

How often can a school expect a student-perpetrated homicide?

Media attention to sensational cases has generated the perception that there is a high risk of a student coming to school and killing someone. This perception of high risk has led to extreme zero tolerance policies and profiling of some students as potential killers. However, a review of the National School Safety Center’s report (http://www.schoolsafety.us/School-Associated-Violent-Deaths-p-6.html) identified 93 incidents when a student came onto school property and killed one or more persons over the worst ten-year period, 1992-3 to 2001-02. This means an average of about 9.3 cases per year or about once a month during the school year. Although we should strive to prevent all such cases, in a nation of 119,000 schools, a rate of 9.3 cases per year means that the average school can expect such an event about once every 12,800 years (119,000 divided by 9.3). This calculation is not intended to be a precise measure of risk, but an indication that there is a huge gap between the general perception of risk and the actual rate for the average school.

And here is more data from the Youth Violence Project…

Homicides in U.S. Schools
shooting1
Caption: Contrary to public perception, school homicides declined after 1993, although from 1997 to 1999 there was a series of copycat shootings stimulated by unprecedented media coverage. Source: National School Safety Center report (includes only cases of student-perpetrated homicides on school property) . http://www.schoolsafety.us/School-Associated-Violent-Deaths-p-6.html

Now let’s put the few shooting deaths that occur due to student-on-student gun violence at schools into a broader context…

Causes of Death in Young People
shooting2
Caption: The risk of death by school homicide is miniscule in comparison to other causes. According to the National Center of Vital Statistics, the leading cause of death among young people is accidents (primarily motor vehicle accidents). Although there were 2,261 homicides of school-age youth in 2004, almost all of them took place outside of school. According to a report of the National Center for School Safety, there were just 10 student homicides at school that year. This makes the risk of homicide about 226 times greater outside of school than at school. Source: National Center of Vital Statistics, 2004. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss.htm

So the bottom line is that media myth-makers are dead wrong when they imply that our schools, churches, and public squares in general are not safe from gun-wielding maniacs. Sadly, too many in the media choose to exaggerate the violence as a way of gaining ratings, and this leads people to have a distorted view of reality as a result.

For reference, here are some great skeptically-oriented books on this and related topics. I heartily recommend them so that the next time you are presented with similar stories, your Baloney Detection Kit is in tip-top shape and ready to deal with the nonsense…

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner
Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best
Media Mythmakers by Benjamin Radford

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2 Responses to “Shootings & Media Myth”

  1. Badrescher said

    Michael Moore is a lying, scaremongering, egocentric scumbag. I think it’s pretty funny, actually, that I put Michael Moore and Ben Stein in the same specific category. I wonder how either of them would feel about that…

  2. [...] You’d pretty much have to be living underneath a rock to not have heard about last Friday’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  All told, 20 children and 6 adults were killed by the shooter, Adam Lanza, before he killed himself.  Understandably, people all over the nation are numb and puzzled about how something like this could happen.  I know that at the high school where I teach, it has certainly been a topic of much debate and conversation.  One of the most asked questions is “Are our schools safe?” – in general, the answer is yes. [...]

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