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CNN, “Experts” Reiterate the Press’s Ethic: It’s OK to Lie about Kids

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Photo by Ewan McIntosh | flickr creative commons

CNN Newsdesk Editor Michael Martinez’s January 15 story, “Experts: N. Mexico suspect, other young shooters show preteens’ impulse actions,” resurrects the standard press misperception that “gunfire is now occurring in America’s earlier grades.” Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, notes in the piece, “It’s becoming more and more common, especially in the middle-school age, for these kids to be committing these violent acts. Per Martinez’s story, “Raja was referring to a list of school violence compiled by CNN tracing violence in U.S. schools, including shootings in middle and elementary schools,”

Complete fabrication. CNN’s own list and subsequent update on shootings at American schools show nothing of the sort. Neither does work by the National School Safety Center (NSSC) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). CNN’s analysis lists the following numbers of shooters age 15 and younger conducted fatal attacks at or near U.S. schools:

1984-1989:  3

1989-1993:  2

1994-1998:  8

1999-2003:  6

2004-2008:  3

2009-2013:  2

That is, the most recent five years had the lowest number of shootings involving younger teen and preteen shooters in at least three decades. If preteens—those age 12 and younger—are the subject, there have been only two school shooters that age in the last 15 years, compared to three in the previous 15 years. This is far too few to indicate a "trend."

Analysis prior to this period remains unknowable. Tabulations of school violence prior to the NSSC’s School Associated Violent Deaths and CDC’s comprehensive surveys in 1992 must be suspected of severe undercounts. Such shootings were considered local events, not national news as they are now.

The CDC recently pointed out that “school associated violent deaths are rare… of all youth homicides, less than 2% occur at school, and this percentage has been stable for the past decade.” Both NSSC and CDC report that the numbers and percent of homicides at school are considerably lower in the 2000s, and especially in last few years, than in the 1990s.

These facts carry little weight with many journalists and press-oriented sources. After falsely announcing "the growing frequency of school shootings," Martinez and the two “experts” he chose heaped on the usual unfounded disparagements and clichés vilifying younger teens:

   “Middle-schoolers are impulsive and they can’t think of the consequences of their actions, and they can’t think of empathy,” Raja said. “Some of them have difficulty with empathy or taking on the perspective of another person.” ... “People should remember that a 12-year-old is barely past the age of believing in Santa Claus,” said Wendy Walsh, a behavior expert and psychologist. “While there is great variance in cognitive development, plenty of kids this age are unable to fully comprehend that death is permanent,” Walsh said. “Add to that the impact of violent video games where ‘downed’ characters get up again, and there is good reason to assume this child does not think like an adult.”

However, it might be good if middle-schoolers do not “think like an adult,” since all the way up to senior-citizen years, adults’ rates of murder and shootings are much higher than for middle-school-aged youths. A youth under 15 remains far more likely to be murdered at home by a household adult than at or near a school by a peer. This questions any analysis that implicitly lauds superior adult empathy and comprehension.

Why do the media erroneously create and publicize misperceptions about the moral development of teens, rather than correct them? The American press and others profit from fostering panic toward young people, fed by “more violence at younger ages” myths. In fact, the murder arrest rate for younger teen, like for youths in general, was less than half as high in 2012 (0.4 per 100,000 population age 10-14) than in the first year reliably reported, 1960 (0.9) (see tabulation below).

However, unwilling to acknowledge recent trends toward the lowest levels of murder and other violence by youth in at least half a century—and the inconvenient aging of violent offenders—ethics-challenged reporters and news sources exploit the unspoken journalistic and professional amorality that lying about young people is acceptable.

Murder arrests of youths ages 15 and younger, 1960-2012

Period

Average annual murder arrests

Arrest rate*

1960-64

159

 .89

1965-69

234

 1.18

1970-74

348

 1.66

1975-79

276

 1.41

1980-84

205

 1.14

1985-89

249

 1.49

1990-94

412

 2.26

1995-99

294

 1.51

2000-04

145

 .69

2005-09

120

 .57

2010-12

91

 .44

*Arrest rate is average annual homicide arrests for ages under 15 per 100,000 population age 10-14. Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, tabulated by YouthFacts.org, see method at: http://www.youthfacts.org/homarr.htm

Keywords: crime trends, Juvenile justice, media

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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