Judging From the News, You'd Think They Were a Plague

Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, and Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, are co-authors of "Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News."

It is ironic and disturbing that, as youth crime is at its lowest in decades, Americans are growing more and more fearful of young people. With the recent school shootings in Santee and El Cajon, California, and with the second anniversary of the Columbine shooting this Friday, it is critical to ask what role news coverage plays in shaping our views of crime by young people and how news depictions of youth can be improved.

In a society that relies on the media to tell it the story of youth crime, Americans are increasingly misinformed about the behavior of their young people. According to an ABC News poll, 76% of Americans say they form their opinions about such crime from what they see on TV or read in newspapers, as opposed to 22% who ground them in personal experience.

Although youth homicides declined by 68% between 1993 and 1999, and are at their lowest rate since 1966, 62% of the public believes that youth crime is on the rise. While school-associated violent deaths have dropped 72% since 1992, and there was a less than one-in-3-million chance that a youth would be killed in a school last year, 71% of respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll thought a shooting was likely at their children's school.

Naturally, it is horrific when schools, one of the safest places for children to be, are violated by gunfire and death. But the repeated images of students as schoolhouse killers, coupled with the absence of more balanced depictions of youth in general, stereotypes young people as violent and depraved.

In an effort to discern how the news media depict youth crime, we analyzed scholarly research on the subject. Taken together, the best research indicates that crime coverage does not reflect crime trends. For example, while there was a 33% decline in murders between 1990 and 1998, there was a 473% increase in homicide coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs. While homicides make up .1%-.2% of all arrests, homicides constituted more than one-quarter of the crimes reported on the evening news.

The news media, particularly TV news, unduly connect race and violent crime. Six of seven studies we reviewed found that homicides of whites generate more, or longer, stories than murders of minorities. Conversely, three-quarters of the research that analyzed the perpetrators' race found that minorities were overrepresented in the news when compared with the actual proportion of crime they committed. It's no wonder that twice as many white Americans believe they are more likely to be victimized by a minority than by another white person, despite the fact that whites are actually three times more likely to be victimized by whites than by minorities.

Although there were fewer studies of youth crime, the findings mirrored studies about media depictions of minorities. In one study, 68% of local TV news stories about violence in California involved youth, while youth made up only 14% of violent crime arrests in the state.

Ultimately, the simultaneous and consistent presentation of three significant distortions in the news creates a "misinformation synergy." It is not just that African Americans and other minorities are overrepresented as criminals and underrepresented as victims, that young people are enmeshed in violent stories or that violent crime is given exaggerated coverage. It is that all three combine forces to produce an unfair and inaccurate overall image of crime in America. Add to that a majority of readers and viewers who rely on the media, as opposed to personal experience, to tell them about crime, and we have a perfect recipe for a misinformed public.

This misinformation synergy can have a profound impact not only on public opinion, but also on public policy. Nationally, while youth crime fell sharply during most of the 1990s, 47 states made it easier to try youths in adult court; more than 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults in 1998.

Over the last 20 years in California, juvenile arrests have fallen by 40%, while adult arrests have increased. In 1978, juveniles made up 30% of all felony arrests in the state; in 1998, they consisted of less than 15%.

Despite this sharp decline in youth crime and slight increase in adult crime, 60% of respondents to a California poll commissioned by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation agreed with the statement that youth "commit most crime nowadays." This is almost exactly the same percentage of Californians who voted in favor of Proposition 21 (62%), an initiative that makes it easier for entire categories of youthful offenders to be tried as adults.

To redress this information disconnect, the news media need to provide more context in their coverage, as they regularly do for economic or sports stories. Adding data about the role that guns or alcohol play in a youth homicide, for example, would broaden coverage. Reminding viewers that shootings such as those at Santana and Granite Hills high schools are not the norm would help them gain proper perspective.

A good example of this occurred a week after the school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., when The Times ran an article on how safe schools generally are. The story quoted numerous experts discussing a variety of possible causes for violence, thereby adding both statistical context and breadth to the discussion of youth crime.

The news media should devote more resources to old-fashioned enterprise journalism. Several months after a school shooting by a 6-year-old boy in Mount Morris Township, Mich., the Washington Post ran a long story about how the shooter had grown up surrounded by guns and drugs. Rather than allowing the story to go down as one more unfathomable atrocity, the Post story explained the boy's act in a way that produced a fuller understanding of the causes of and potential solutions to youth violence.

News outlets should also conduct content analyses of their own coverage and publicize the outcome. That way, they can ensure that they are not covering crimes by minorities or youth out of proportion to their actual occurrence, as most studies show they do.

Finally, the media need to balance stories about youth crime with other stories about youth in general. There were 16 killings among 52 million school students in America last year, but to judge from the news, one would think that our schools are full of budding assassins. Telling other stories about a host of issues that affect young people will remind Americans that it is no fairer to stereotype schoolchildren as Columbine's Dylan Klebold than it would be to taint all adults with the sins of Timothy J. McVeigh. *

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