October 15, 2007

Violent Crime Captures the Headlines

PEJ News Coverage Index October 7 - 12, 2007

The coverage of the Oct. 10 shootings at Success Tech Academy in Cleveland had the all-too-familiar elements of the shocking violence in America story.

There was the live “Breaking News” coverage on cable news—complete with scenes of shocked and sobbing students outside the high school, flashing lights on emergency vehicles, a victim wheeled on a gurney, and concern that the carnage was not over.

“The building is not secure,” noted a local TV reporter picked up on CNN. “The gunman, we believe, is still in the building.”

Soon the eyewitness video surfaced, footage of screaming students inside the school (“this is not a joke,” shouted one) scrambling desperately for safety. And within a day, media post-mortems began to focus on Asa Coon, the 14-year-old Success Tech student who wounded four people before killing himself, as well as on the bigger issue of why warning signs about him were missed.

The Oct. 11 “World News Tonight” on ABC described Coon as a violent boy from a troubled family who had earlier attempted suicide. “With more than 50,000 pupils in the Cleveland system, educators are simply overwhelmed and can easily miss teens as troubled as Asa Coon,” ABC correspondent Eric Horng reported. That night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed a psychiatrist about Coon in a segment labeled “Mind of a Shooter.”

Though the Cleveland incident evoked mentions of the 1999 Columbine shooting that left 15 dead, the Success Tech case, fortunately, did not result in extensive casualties. (The worst school massacre in U.S. history occurred on April 16, 2007 when 33 people ended up dead on the campus of Virginia Tech.) But last week’s news coverage included three separate incidents that made it a frightening week for random violence in the U.S.

Together, the three incidents accounted for 8% of the total newshole last week as measured in PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index, which analyzes the content of the news from a range of media. That would have made them collectively the No. 2 story of the week.
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The Cleveland shooting filled 4% of the overall newshole, making it the fifth-biggest story of the week from Oct. 7-12. There was also the Oct. 7 killing spree by a 20-year-old sheriff’s deputy that took six lives in tiny Crandon Wisconsin (ninth-biggest story at 3%). And a Pennsylvania boy who had amassed a weapons arsenal in alleged preparation for an assault on his high school was arrested on Oct. 10. (That story missed the top-10 roster, but did generate 1% of the coverage.)

The top story last week (accounting for 15% of the newshole in the Index), was the Presidential campaign, where a good deal of the coverage was focused on Republican Fred Thompson’s first debate performance. The second-biggest story (at 6%) was immigration, with a federal judge’s ruling against a proposed crackdown on employers generating the most attention to the subject since late June. Events inside Iraq were next at 6%, with the controversy over Blackwater still simmering. And the awarding of the Peace Prize to Al Gore was a major reason why this year’s Nobel awards made up the fourth biggest story at 4%.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

There were several similar patterns connecting the three frightening stories out of Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania last week.

First, 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.

The carnage in Crandon Wisconsin committed by a 20-year old deputy, Tyler Peterson, might have resulted from “jealousy” according to an Oct. 8 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune headlined: “6 killed in ‘crime of passion.’” Even as the story quoted a Peterson acquaintance saying “he was just a reasonable kind of guy,” it reported that one of the victims was his ex-girlfriend.

All of those killed, who were either high school students or recent high school graduates, were “run-of-the-mill, regular kids,” a neighbor said in the story. “Real good kids.”

“He had guns, grenades and videos of the Columbine attack,” noted ABC anchor Charles Gibson, introducing an Oct. 11 story on the 14-year-old in the Philly suburb found with a large weapons cache. “All belonged to a boy who was tormented at school and who was plotting revenge.”

If the youngster was plotting to attack a local high school, the ABC account painted a pretty clear picture on motive. The boy (who was not named) had been home schooled by his parents after being bullied and tormented in junior high school because of his weight. Online, the story reported, he ran a web site for an organization called “The Imperial Cobra Army.”

For all that there seems a familiar trajectory to the coverage of these violent crime incidents such as the tragedies last week, however, they have not been a major feature of the media overall this year.

An examination of the News Coverage Index in 2007 finds that only five such incidents cracked the weekly list of top-10 events, and did so during only seven of the 41 weeks of the year so far. (This excludes celebrity crime stories of a different sort, such as Michael Vick, O.J. Simpson, and astronaut Lisa Nowak, and terrorism plots.)

Those five incidents included the January tale of two teenaged Missouri boys who were kidnapped and later rescued; the NASA engineer who killed himself and another employee inside the Johnson Space Center in April; the missing, nine-month pregnant Ohio woman whose cop boyfriend was arrested for her murder in late June; and the brutal home invasion and murder of three family members in peaceful Chesire Connecticut in July.

All of these paled in comparison with the attention given the April 16 Virginia Tech killing spree, however, a story that generated more coverage that week (51% of the newshole from April 15-20) than any other event in 2007. But after the media descended on the Blacksburg campus that week to pursue every conceivable angle, even the story evaporated quickly in the press. The next week it receded into third place (7% of the newshole). The following week, it virtually disappeared, accounting for less than 1% of the overall coverage

If history is any guide, the coverage of last week's incidents has already moved on, too, and soon many are likely to forget about the shooting at Success Tech Academy, Crandon, Wisconsin and “The Imperial Cobra Army.” And when another incident occurs, the media will try to probe “what went wrong?” all over again.

 

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: MSNBC aired a special report on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 10, instead of its regular show Out in the Open. That program is not included in this week's sample.