Media and Juvenile Violence: The Connecting Threads

By Doi, David | Nieman Reports, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Media and Juvenile Violence: The Connecting Threads


Doi, David, Nieman Reports


There are some important lessons we've learned about how the coverage of violence--especially juvenile violence--influences the way many of us think about teenagers and crime.

* We've learned that coverage of crime stories on television news has gone up dramatically while actual crime has remained relatively constant, or even gone down during the same time periods.

* We've learned that during the 1990's, crime has become the number one story covered by network nightly news. In 1993,1994, 1995 and 1997, crime stories ranked first among network stories. In local markets, crime stories consume one-quarter to one-third of total news time.

* We've learned from surveys that the public believes crime is rampant, except in their own neighborhoods and communities, primarily because of the way the media present this "news."

* We've learned that media portrayals of youth violence, especially visual images, are dominated by pictures of African-Americans or Latino youngsters.

* We've learned from one large-scale analysis of local TV that more than two-thirds of coverage of violent crime was focused on juveniles while youth were actually responsible for less than 15 percent of the violence.

* We've learned that when the media focus on youth violence and juvenile delinquency, they report disproportionately on homicide, which is the least common antisocial behavior of teenagers.

* We've learned, from one analysis, that 40 percent of stories newspapers do about children are related to violence (compared with 25 percent that are related to education).

In "false images? The News Media and Juvenile Crime," a report we issued last year, we examined in-depth the question of whether the news media "accurately portrayed the reality of juvenile crime." With some notable exceptions, our findings suggest that "while juvenile delinquency and violence are often treated as epidemic by the news media, this is not supported by the facts.... this media firestorm has either created or reinforced a public impression that juvenile crime is rampant and a major threat to the safety of the community.... (and) slight increases in juvenile crime have been blown out of proportion.... while reductions in juvenile violence have frequently gone unreported."

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, summed up our findings with the following observation: "Most of us have the sense that crime has been moving up incessantly. That's because a crime-increase story is a page one story, and a crime-decrease story is a page 23 story."

The impact of inaccurate reporting or inappropriate placement of stories is that public perception and, consequently, political reaction often becomes misguided. As our report concluded, "The media have contributed to and fueled the superficiality of the discourse and the hysterical tone of the political debate."

Part of the sensationalizing that our report highlights is illustrated by a few examples of headlines from the covers of national newsmagazines when they have devoted coverage to these topics. "Teen Violence: Wild in the Streets," Newsweek declared on its August 2, 1992 cover. A year later, U.S. News & World Report chose for its cover line the following: "Guns in the Schools: When Killers Come to Class--Even Suburban Parents Now Fear the Rising Tide of Violence," and in 1996, this same magazine revisited this topic with a cover story entitled "Teenage Time Bombs." Time visited this issue, too, in a cover story calling these violent youngsters "Children Without Pity."

Certainly not all media coverage of juvenile crime has been either misleading or blown out of proportion when compared with the real and difficult challenges it presents to families, communities and public officials. And it is important to understand the common threads that connect the kind of reporting that helps readers and viewers to understand the threat posed by teenage violence, the reasons why it is occurring, and what might be done to prevent it from happening in the future. …

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