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Remember this number

When some deputy district attorney wants to taint the jury pool against someone suspected of defrauding worker’s injury insurance and so he invites a television station to come along to shoot footage when they are observing the suspect loading some furniture into a truck, it can be very easy to believe that such fraud is rampant.

When a political candidate says, and news outlets report it without checking it, that there are welfare queens living in big city hotels while receiving welfare payments under a dozen different names and news anchors obediently talk about “the growing trend of welfare fraud,” viewers are inclined to believe it.

When there are two school shootings in a single week, as there were last week in Nevada and Massachusetts and they are given heavy news coverage in both local and national media, it’s natural to believe that schools are dangerous places.

The most important number a news consumer needs is the population of the United States. At the moment it is 314 million. When the “growing trend of school violence” was reported last week, it is good to keep in mind that the number of people in the United States killed on school grounds each year averages 23. School is where children are safest.

In the census year of 2010, when the U.S. population was 308,745,538, 31 people died on school grounds. That is 0.00001004 percent of the population. And even that inflates the problem. If only the homicides against students on school grounds that year are counted, the number drops to 11. Granted, the school age population is smaller, but even it is in the 50 million range.

In the 1990s, there was a cluster of school shootings. In most cases, they were local crimes with no particular national import, yet in some cases – in Pearl, Mississippi, West Paducah, Kentucky, Springfield, Oregon – they received national coverage. It was never clear why certain ones were considered worthy of network coverage. There were at least 34 such incidents in the 1990s, but only certain ones got national exposure. The Columbine tragedy in 1999 involved so many murders that it was easy to understand why it went national, but the others were not. It may have been because of what had been an evolving story template in journalism that a generation of violent youthful superpredators was on its way, though such a generation never appeared.

But the heavy national news coverage of the 1990s school shooting incidents left the impression that schools were generally violent, which was false. Neither editors nor reporters were willing to take responsibility for this distortion caused by the glare of publicity thrown on a few freakish incidents. As a result, scarce school resources were diverted by politicians to electronic security gear, more police, etc. It took school districts many years to be able to start redirecting those dollars back into classrooms—after the alarmist news coverage that inflated the threat had faded. Think of those hundreds of millions of dollars that were badly spent.

I’m not arguing against covering these tragedies, but in favor of context in our reporting by including information on their rarity. Not only will it prevent unwise policy decisions, but it will give parents (who, after these incidents, must send their children back to school) some better information on whether schools are safe.

After the Sparks Middle School shooting last week, the Reno daily newspaper did not report on how rare these incidents are. In fact, of all those local and national news outlets that covered the story, I could find only one story that put the incident in perspective, an NBC report – “Two killings do not a trend make; homicides remain rare in schools” by Bill Dedman. (It was packaged as an investigative report, though information on the scarcity of school homicides can be found online with about five clicks.)

Children in schools are safer than anywhere else they spend their time, and certainly safer than in the home. Any loss of life is a source of sorrow, but against the statistic of 23 children killed on school grounds each year is the statistic of three children killed in domestic abuse EVERY DAY of the year in the United States.

News by definition is the out-of-the-ordinary. We don’t report on all the banks that have not been robbed.

So here’s the really offensive part: The conventions of our business treat the routine (three children murdered in homes every day) as un-newsworthy, consigned to bare mentions in the news, and treat the freakishly rare (two people killed at Sparks Middle School on October 21, 2013) as newsworthy, covering it so heavily that people think schools are unsafe. Thus, a major problem is nearly ignored, or at least robbed of its public identity, while a minor problem is elevated and given a huge public profile. The rare is converted into the norm, the norm is converted into the rare.

Our calling has to take some responsibility for that kind of distortion, just as it changed its practices when it unwittingly aided Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s by too rigidly following journalistic objectivity.

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.

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