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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Monday, April 29, 2002

School Shooting Epidemic or Reporting Epidemic?

Prof. Volokh, in his always-fascinating blog, muses on the epidemic of school shooting thusly:

“What are the possible causes for the advent of the mass school shootings that we've had over roughly the past 5 years in the U.S. -- and now outside the U.S. as well?…

I know of only one conjecture that is even slightly plausibly, and I stress that it is only a conjecture: What changed since the time of the first school shooting is that there's been a lot of media coverage of school shootings. Teenagers keenly resent their own insignificance; when they see someone being in the news -- even for committing an atrocity -- some of them begin to envy this person's fame. And some tiny fraction of those may even decide, against all reason, self-preservation, and decency to take the same path. The first mass school shooting was an essentially random event, but the media coverage that it triggered dramatically increased the probability of subsequent events of the same variety.”

But is it really an epidemic? Sometimes, we see a pattern because we are looking for a pattern; sometimes the media reports a story because it fits a topical story line.

From The Daily Camera, Littleton, CO, we get this timeline of school shootings: one in the 70’s, one in the 80’s, and nine between 1996 and 1999. A statistically significant cluster? Well, from the Justice Policy Institute, we get this 1998 report, revealingly titled "School House Hype:
School shootings and the real risks kids face in America." It should be noted that this report came out before the Columbine shootings. I cannot substantiate rumors that the authors went on to become equity analysts promoting Enron stock.

Interesting factoid:

“Between 1990 and 1995, for example, homicides in America dropped by 13 percent according to the FBI, but coverage of homicides on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news programs increased by 240 percent. If evening news stories were used as a means of counting homicides in America during that time, a miscount of colossal proportions would have occurred…”

The authors go on to conclude that the number of school related violent deaths fell during the 90’s – sort of like the national trend. But other stories I pick up refer to school shootings starting in 1996, so what was the manner of violent death prior to 1996, or where was the news coverage?

If this group, or this study, has been de-bunked I would love to know. Meanwhile, epidemic of shooting, or epidemic of reporting?

I report, you deride.


This just in - the 90's are over. In fact, the year is 2002, so an updated timeline might be appropriate, although we lose comparability with our study through 1998.
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