By Dennis Myers
In Colombia last week, an export company announced it is marketing bullet proof vests and backpacks for school children.
A California student is facing expulsion for holding an opinion sympathetic to the Sandy Hook killer.
In Utah, 200 teachers went through weapons training, or so a gun group claimed.
A CNN news reader says he may leave the country unless gun laws change.
Two Nevada legislators, Michele Fiore and James Settlemeyer, are talking about teachers carrying guns on school campuses.
And almost certainly other state and federal legislators are planning legislation.
These are some of the reactions to the Connecticut school shooting on December 14. The real question is why they are reacting at all. Why not first give some thought to the problem of school shootings. It might lead to the conclusion that the best thing we can do to solve this “problem” is nothing.
There were 20 small children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook. It got white hot news coverage all over the world.
According to one count reported by Slate, in the 16 days that followed Sandy Hook, 321 people — including six children and 16 teens — were killed by guns in the United States. THAT massacre got little attention.
The Sandy Hook incident was a freak. Violence on school grounds has been declining for decades.
The massacre that followed Sandy Hook is no freak. It happens all year long, every year.
Of the places children frequent, school is by far the safest. It’s a refuge from violence, and the freakish incidents like Sandy Hook don’t change that.
In the 1990s, during the spate of school shootings, the conduct of journalism was incredibly irresponsible. Reporters and media entities failed to make clear how aberrant that cluster of events was, with the result that the public and politicians overreacted to it, pouring resources into expensive security policies and equipment. Huge amounts of money were diverted from education, all to solve a problem that barely existed.
Meanwhile the slow-motion massacre kept happening, day after day, month after month, year in and year out.
Not until relatively recently, after billions were wasted, did school districts and legislatures start reducing that emphasis and return funds to education.
Journalism irresponsibility did not end there. Not only did journalists withhold information about the rarity of school shootings, but media entities refused to even consider the possibility that the heavy news coverage was generating copycats.
A decade later, we seem to have learned nothing. We are repeating the same mistakes.
During the 1990s series of school shootings the Justice Policy Institute reported, “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.” That statement was based on information from the National Climatic Data Center. When I put that information on the air in a television report in Reno after the 1999 Columbine incident, I got a complaint from a Reno High School teacher who didn’t want anything like the truth to undercut his wish for greater protection in schools. But as journalists our job is to offend interest groups if it gets better and more reliable information to the public.
Our heavy news coverage to rare incidents results in our converting the exception into the rule and causing the public to ignore large problems in favor of miniscule incidents that do not represent a larger pattern.
There is no blinking at the poignancy of small children being murdered. But journalism does us no service by surrendering to emotion, nor have we any right to deceive the public in our quest for ratings and circulation.
Finally, we have an obligation to at least CONSIDER evidence that our conduct in inflating coverage of criminal tragedies may perpetuate them.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.