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You were more likely to be killed at a school twenty years ago

Posted on 16 December 2012

What happened in Connecticut sucks. No question. But, like all things, it’s important to look at this in context.

I say this because over the past few days, people have made comments to me and online to the effect that, “I don’t know what’s happening to this world” and “things just keep getting worse.” When, in fact, they don’t.

How do I know? Numbers! One of my least favourite subjects in high school, but still highly important. And here’s what they say: between 1992 and the latter half of the last decade (the most recent period that data is available), homicides and violence in U.S. schools are down. Like, a lot. This is based on data from the U.S. Department of Justice, National Center for Education Statistics, FBI, and others. Here, for example, is homicides by students on school grounds during the school day, as graphed by the Curry School of Education:

The rate of homicides in U.S. schools has declined substantially since the early 1990s

Here’s number of students carrying weapons at school:

Percentage of Students Who Carried a Weapon to School, By Gender

This latest event will change those numbers. And there’s a lot of subtlety to the data, which you can delve into more in this Indicators of School Crime and Safety report. But once we start talking about how to make our schools safer (and yes, I know that will spill over into Canada), it’s important that we don’t all start from the baseline assumption that things are worse now then they were before, because even in the United States where these sensationalist media events come from, things are generally trending in a positive direction.

The media’s role in all this

So why does it seem like it’s getting worse? Let’ s talk media.

First of all, Morgan Freeman has not shared his opinion on the media’s role. So there’s that.

But more realistically, it is entirely fair to say that the media has a role in helping people perceive the world as a harsher, more dangerous place. Because we have twenty-four hour access to the words and images and emotions coming out of Connecticut, it’s going to be that much easier for us to understand what happened and then to imagine it happening to us. In fact, we’re being actively asked to imagine it happening to us in a quest for media interactivity: “how do you feel about these shootings?” posted online or asked on TV prompts us to think a little more about it. And that makes it seem more real- and more likely.

I don’t know that this is necessarily the media being irresponsible, though. If local news outlets didn’t provide coverage because it’s irrelevant, there would be questions of why, when that’s all anyone else is talking about. Why isn’t this outlet doing it’s job?

I think the easiest and probably best explanation comes from author/columnist Dan Gardner: People like stories. The most compelling pieces of journalism contain stories. And it’s far easier to make a story out of a one-off tragedy than a general positive trend. To paraphrase Mr. Gardner, the story of a child who isn’t in danger is a boring story.

But it’s important to remember those stories are out there.


Filed under: media

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