Professor tracks Columbine media discourse from 'school shooting' to 'terrorism'

Apr 17, 2009
David Altheide, Arizona State University regents' professor in the School of Social Transformation, writes about "Lessons of Columbine" in the May edition of American Behavioral Scientist. Altheide is pictured speaking on "Creating, Framing and Amplifying Fear" at the World Social Summit in September 2008. Credit: World Social Summit photo

Decades spent studying mass media messages of fear led noted Arizona State University scholar David Altheide to examine how the Columbine High School shootings on April 20, 1999, were originally portrayed in the media and how those messages changed after 9/11 and leading up to the war in Iraq.

Altheide, a Regents' Professor of justice and social inquiry in ASU's School of Social Transformation, describes his findings in "The Columbine Shootings and the Discourse of Fear." His article will appear, along with others by noted scholars in the field, in a special two-part edition of the journal American Behavioral Scientist this April and May with the theme "Lessons of Columbine."

Previous shootings rarely used the word terrorism, except to imply that urban were "terrorizing" communities. Altheide says that initially nearly every account described the events at Columbine as a horrific school shooting. However, terrorism became more closely associated with Columbine after the 9/11 criminal attacks on the United States. Referring to the events as "terrorism" became an accepted way of describing the shootings in the media and linking them in a propaganda campaign to control enemies at home and abroad, he says. Indeed, on the fifth anniversary of the event in 2004, a writer for Slate online magazine, Dave Cullen, wrote: "The school served as means to a grander end, to terrorize the entire nation by attacking a symbol of American life." School policies began to change and students who even threatened school violence were increasingly being charged with terrorism.

"Before 9/11, most people would argue that school shootings weren't terrorism," says Altheide. "But after 9/11 it became credible that they were. People were willing to put these events under the umbrella of terrorism, al-Qaida and so much more - the term 'terrorism' became amorphous and all-inclusive." Altheide notes that a more accurate description supported by several studies is "rampage shooting."

In his article, Altheide contends that the extensive coverage and framing of the shootings as terrorist acts contributed to the broad discourse of fear as well as a more specific context for worrying about and protecting children, legitimating the war on terror and expanding social control. In the past, school administrators and local law enforcement entities handled such events. "Now federal agencies, including the FBI and Homeland Security, are involved," says Altheide. "Surveillance and other security tactics are employed and enhanced and our civil liberties are threatened. Everyone - child and adult - is seen both as a potential victim and suspect."

The methodology Altheide employed in his research began with a qualitative examination of news documents. He collected and analyzed data to follow certain issues, words, themes and frames over a period of time, across different issues and across different news media, an approach called "tracking discourse." This approach identifies key thematic shifts and focuses on trends over time. Beginning with a preliminary examination of several hundred newspaper reports, magazines and television transcripts that referred to Columbine in conjunction with other shootings, he then moved to an examination of print media coverage in four countries: the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain.

One of the lessons of Columbine is that casting school shootings within what Altheide calls a "mega frame" of terrorism can distort reality. "There was a concept developed in the social sciences 30 years ago called 'moral panic,'" Altheide says. "It was used when we overreacted to something, like drugs, by changing not only the law but also the social order. With terrorism, very few people suggest we might overreact with moral panic. That schools were dangerous places, vulnerable to terrorism, became a given." He states that schools are still very safe, but viewing them through a lens of fear - terrorism - can change how we treat students and approach other problems.

Source: Arizona State University (news : web)

Explore further: Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Terrorism: What the next president will face

Sep 10, 2008

Philadelphia, PA (Sept. 10, 2008) On the seventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, what is the nature of the terrorist threat against the United States and other nations of the world and how should the next President ...

Terrorism risk determines homeland security spending

Jun 05, 2008

A new study in Policy Studies Journal reveals that measures of terrorism risk are found to be positive determinants of Homeland Security funding, while measures of political influence and party affiliation of elected officials ...

Recommended for you

Study finds law dramatically curbing need for speed

Apr 18, 2014

Almost seven years have passed since Ontario's street-racing legislation hit the books and, according to one Western researcher, it has succeeded in putting the brakes on the number of convictions and, more importantly, injuries ...

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

Apr 17, 2014

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

Apr 17, 2014

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Creative activities outside work can improve job performance

Apr 16, 2014

Employees who pursue creative activities outside of work may find that these activities boost their performance on the job, according to a new study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

WarRoom
4 / 5 (2) Apr 17, 2009
Yeah, that's crazy, even if the Columbine shooters had wanted to terrorize other students, that's a long way from what Al Queda did in blowing up the World Trade Center. Terrorism was certainly not the main goal of the "Trench Coat Mafia" whereas it was the main goal of Al Queda. The "Trench Coat Mafia" mainly just wanted to kill their peers, for Al Queda, murder out of rage was secondary to the main goal of terrorizing an entire nation.
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2009
And both are a long way from the truth.

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.