School Shootings in Government Statistics and News Headlines: A Dose of Social Reality

As University of Delaware Professor of Sociology Joel Best reminds us in his latest text, social problems don’t come into existence on their own. Instead, social problems emerge as part of a process in which institutions and groups select some kinds of information and ignore other kinds of information to tell stories about risk, danger and trouble. Claims about the existence of a social problem don’t have to match observable reality if they serve some other purpose. When news media create a story, for instance, grabbing attention and sustaining dramatic “human interest” tension can be as important or even more important than accuracy.

With this in mind, let’s consider the latest release of data on violence against children by Bureau of Justice Statistics. Just yesterday, a new report containing the latest available statistics on youth violence in and out of schools was made available to the public. The very first figure of this report shows that the number of homicides and suicides in schools has been declining (even as school enrollment in the U.S. has been growing):

Latest BJS statistics: School shootings have been decreasing, not increasing

Furthermore, the second figure of the BJS report indicates that homicides and suicides of children in school are strikingly rare compared to homicides and suicides of children out of school. The danger for children is largely in the park, on the street and at home — not at school:

Bureau of Justice Statistics: More than 99% of child murders and suicides happen outside of school

And yet, here is the headline that USA Today chose for its news story discussing the new BJS report:

USA Today Headline of Hype on June 11 2014: Despite Beefed-Up Security, School Shootings Continue

The images USA Today chose to accompany the article were not representative photographs of safe children going about their business. Instead, USA Today showed the extremely rare exceptions to the rule: grieving children comforting one another after school shootings. Regardless of the actual trends, USA Today failed to focus on the environment outside of school, where more than 99% of violent child deaths occur. Instead, the text of the news article focused on the need for new school policies to confront the “problem” of school shootings. The social problem of school shootings is socially created rather than an objective reality, but nevertheless the story of that problem strongly influences what we do. This is one way in which constructed social reality can be real in its effects.

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