Prime-Time Violent Crime

An analysis of last week’s news coverage reveals the allure and potential for sensationalism in stories about young people who commit violent crime. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, three separate incidents–Asa Coon’s shooting at SuccessTech Academy, the capture of a teen’s weapons cache in Pennsylvania and the rampage by a 20-year-old sheriff’s deputy in Wisconsin–garnered 8 percent of total news coverage for the week, making them, collectively, the number-two story behind the 2008 presidential campaign. The Coon shooting on its own accounted for 4 percent of coverage, placing it in the number-five spot.

According to the PEJ analysis,

all three incidents primarily involved young people, many of high school age. For all the attention the stories generated, each was largely a two-day event that then moved quickly off the media radar screen. And cable news again demonstrated its attraction to such breaking-news disasters beyond that of other media. It devoted a combined 14% of its time to the three stories, 7% to the Cleveland school case, 3% to the arrest of the 14-year-old from Plymouth Meeting PA, and 4% to the Wisconsin shooting.

Once the facts of the cases were out, the media quickly began to search for motive, to try to make sense of the senseless.

Bear in mind that this analysis compiles data from the five major media sectors: newspapers, websites, network and cable TV and radio. When you break out by sector, the results vary a bit (the Coon shooting got more minutes on network TV, for example, than the Iraq War). But no matter which sector or combination of sectors you examine, it’s clear that media machers place a lot of stock in stories about violent crime–particularly when there’s a young perpetrator looking down the barrel of a gun.

I don’t mean to make light of the incidents. They’re serious, to be sure, and each of them certainly merits attention and concern. I, too, was drawn to the stories when they broke and struggled to assign motive in each case. The point, I think, is not to ignore them but rather to put them in proper perspective. The media’s outsize fixation on lurid cases distorts public understanding, leaving casual news consumers with the impression that (a) violent crime among young people is on the rise (it’s not), and (b) the problem can be solved if we figure out how to deal with this particular set of “young killers.” In order to look at the whole picture, the media need a much wider lens.

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