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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Hidden Lessons from Newtown: A Teaching Opportunity

Three tragic shootings: Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012; Century's Cinemark 16 Theater, Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012; Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999. These traumatic events generated highly emotional responses all across our country. In each case, the mass media provided significant misinformation that both fueled the emotionality and interfered with an effective analysis of the causes.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, attention has naturally focused on causes and prevention, with the emphasis on both guns and mental health. There are considerable resources and opportunities for teachers and parents to engage children in educational moments related to both. But what I think has gotten lost in all of this is the way the shooting was reported in the media. The dissemination of colossal misinformation by both mainstream and social media is a blinking red light to which every educator should pay attention. It also provides an excellent opportunity for developing students' knowledge base and skills in reading the media.

Let's look at exactly how each of these traumatic events was presented by the media.

Columbine

Do you remember that two unpopular teenagers from the Trench Coat Mafia sought revenge against the jocks? If you do, you and almost everyone else got it wrong, thanks to the inaccurate reporting by most media sources. By the way, Columbine High isn't even located in the town of Littleton. It's located in the unincorporated township of Columbine, near Littleton. So the media even got that wrong. Even now many people hold onto a memory of two Goth-obsessed loners whose spree was motivated by revenge. There were also many false assumptions made about the parents of both boys. Andrew Solomon's recent heralded book, Far from the Tree, includes a short but revealing interview with Tom and Sue Klebold, the parents of Dylan, one of the killers. It undermines the all-too-easy blaming of the parents that has long been part of the post-Columbine mythology.

Dave Cullen's award winning book, Columbine, does an excellent job of separating myth from reality and makes it very clear how much the media got wrong. His website is also a good source for related information.

The fact is that neither killer was especially a loner, and they had no specific target. Their goal was to kill 500 students with explosives. Their journals also refute the mythology of the event, but by the time they were made public, the popular narrative created by the media had already taken hold.

Aurora

By the time of the Aurora Theater shooting, social media, with its capacity to launch a viral spread of misinformation within minutes, was also a critical variable in the process of irresponsible reporting. Most of the early reports were based on the perspectives of highly emotional participants. The Twitter, You Tube and Facebook accounts were often filled with misinformation and made the police investigation itself more difficult. Some individuals with the same name as the shooter were actually hounded on Facebook sites.

Every available emotional response of parents and participants was highlighted, and even President Obama said he was worried about his two daughters who regularly go to the movies.

The most irresponsible media response came from a leading ABC News commentator who suggested that the suspect might be affiliated with the Colorado Tea Party -- based on the fact that someone on that group's website had a similar name! This misinformation quickly spread across the Web.

Newtown

The mess in reporting what went on at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut began immediately with the identification of the shooter as Ryan Lanza, who is in fact the shooter's brother, living in New Jersey. This false announcement by Wolf Blitzer on CNN caused a stream of unfounded accusations against Ryan.

The reports also indicated that the principal knew the killer and had buzzed him into the school, when in fact he had broken glass to gain entry. He was described as wearing combat gear, although that has never been corroborated.

The killer's mother was reported to be a teacher at the school who was found dead on the premises, when it appears she was largely unconnected to the school and was found dead in her home.

It is still undetermined as to whether the mother was "an avid gun collector," as described in the press. She had some guns and liked to shoot for sport, but we still don't know how many or whether she really was a "collector."

Media misrepresentation of the causes of the Newtown shooting continues to take place. There was recently a widely circulated report, coming initially from CBS News, that the shooter was motivated by a desire to top the record set by a Norwegian shooter some years ago. That report continued to be disseminated even as the primary police officials involved in investigating the case said that this information was not correct and that they are still collecting information from multiple sources regarding the motives of Adam Lanza.

The Dangers of Inaccurate Media Reporting

At its worst, all of this media misinformation is dangerous. Innocent people are damaged, and critical analysis of serious problems is undermined when careful fact-checking procedures are ignored in the interests of being first with the news.

We also have to acknowledge that it isn't just the media who are to blame. The media seizes on the madness of crowd responses and feeds off our own emotionality. Irrational responses from both the left and the right in each shooting interfered with effective problem solving directed toward prevention. From guns to parenting to mental health, effective dialogue has been difficult. As just one example, while liberals see tight gun control as the best answer, conservatives put forward proposals to give each school its own police force. All of this madness of crowds is perfect fodder for the media machine.

What We Can Do

So what can we as educators do? Most importantly, we have a responsibility to teach our students to see and understand how the media often provides emotionally charged misinformation, designed more to attract viewers and readers than to carefully uncover the truth. We also now have a responsibility to make sure our students don't contribute to the problem by disseminating unverified information through Twitter, Facebook or other social media.

There are many resources to help teachers design units about this, in addition to their own research and creativity. The Center for Media Literacy continually publishes useful materials for teachers.

The News Literacy Project is superb and produces useful curriculum materials. I would strongly urge teachers to make their principals aware of this project and to consider becoming one of the participating schools.

The News Literacy website also provides useful links to curriculum guides for teachers.

Additionally, I recommend that you revisit my Edutopia post from August 2012, in which I more broadly covered the topic of reading the media. In that column I also strongly recommended that teachers make use of an excerpt from the first episode of the HBO show, The Newsroom, in which the news anchor apologizes for his role in misrepresenting the news. The series will be available on video in June.

The media representation of the recent events in Newtown provides a teaching opportunity for every social studies and English teacher. Raising a generation of students who are able to respond critically and rationally to these events, and to resist the manipulation that feeds both emotionality and ignorance, will help create an informed electorate that can respond more effectively to solving the attendant problems.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

NicholasVogler's picture
NicholasVogler
UK Graduate Student and K-12 Physical Education Teacher from Lexington, KY

I have talked with other educators within my county and abroad and have determined that although this tragedy does provide a great opportunity to instruct on many things, including media and mental health, that the response most districts used was not to talk about it with students at all; especially elementary school students. I except that you don't have to relate your instruction to this particular event, but relating instruction to current events does cause it to hit home with students. So my question is, at what age do you think it is acceptable to use this "teachable moment" in history and openly discuss this type of situation with students?

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

I think you illustrate my point by using this forum for a highly biased argument that reflects the emotionally driven debate.

Your comments are certainly acceptable as part of the ongoing debate, but really don't belong in this forum.

Mark

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Mark: As I read your original post, I understood how you wish to teach students to distinguish facts from disinformation, as they are framed by arguments or debates by the MSM (mainstream media).

I believe teachers, as much as kids, need to be educated in this matter as well. They, like many in the MSM, don't even seem to understand what the Second Amendment means.

Without a complete understanding of that , any other discussion about Newtown will be incomplete.

It's a freedoms vs. safety issue. I am sure you can see that.

David Suppan's picture

I don't believe the Newtown event is a teachable moment for K-5 kids. As a parent or a teacher, if you are thrust into a conversation because the story was overheard on the news, it is very hard to communicate something like that to kids when it is seemingly incomprehensible to adults.

When I grew up in the 60's there were three assassinations of beloved American leaders; namely, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr.. As adults, we are still having discussions and books written about these violent acts in our society using these assassinations as the background. Our incessant desire to go to war expresses both personal and national violence that is often incomprehensible to ourselves. To talk about these things intelligently requires some knowledge, but a lot more life experience.

To talk about 'freedom' to a child who actually lives the meaning of freedom and hasn't made it into an adult ideology is rather meaningless. I agree with the educator that understands talking about teachers handling guns in classrooms is to put an end to the whole point of public education. If that is the end result of these tragedies then it will eventually eliminate public education and force our society back to homeschooling as the only safe option for educating our children. Even private schools who can hire expensive security systems would never be safe in a school that is known to have armed guards and armed teachers.

Right now the high schools that have an armed guard or policeman in the school seems to be a set-up for finding out who are the potential kids for going to prison. The answer to keeping kids out of prison is solved by providing a living wage for them when they get out of school. Anything short of that goal ends up being contaminated by cynicism and failure.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

The temptation to throw money at a problem is always at the forefront of social engineering. Despite the evidence that doing so is more likely a guarantee for failure, some people still insist on it being the "right thing to do."

As one who lives and works among at-risk populations, I can attest to the likelihood of failure of spending more money to solve social problems. Handing out money is too easy. What has to be done is far more difficult and quite frankly, most of those in power do not want to take on the more difficult path, because doing so would possibly jeopardize their respective power bases.

Politics is all about accumulating and maintaining power, no matter which side of the aisle one sits.

You can't simply offer someone more money to do a lower skilled job unless they have been taught proper values and personal accountability. You can't simply offer someone more money for a lower skilled job if they have undiagnosed or untreated mental or behavioral impairments that hinder their ability to be personally accountable.

I would estimate the 90% of all at-risk youth I have worked with fall into the latter category

An at-risk child cannot be taught proper values and personal accountability if the school has no cooperation from the home. An at-risk child cannot be raised properly without responsible mother and father figures serving a constant presence in their life. Unfortunately, at-risk kids with mental impairments are often the offspring of parents with mental impairments to some degree. This is where substance abuse rears its poisonous and destructive head. If no cooperation between schools and homes exist, the at-risk child faces a bleak future. Schools and therapists cannot do it alone.

Restore an intact family unit and provide better treatment for mental health. I know this suggestion is considered antiquated in certain secular circles and among statists, but I've had the vocal support of many urban leaders who agree with my contention that faith-based organizations must provide a necessary a core moral anchor in at-risk communities.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

I agree with you that students should be educated in a full understanding of the Second Amendment. I think that needs to be done, as with all issues in social studies, with as little bias as possible on the part of the teacher.

I tend not to see issues in terms of this vs. that, two sides.
The careful examination of both freedom, the complexity of issues related to freedom, freedom as related to responsibility, and the complexity related to insuring safety for all citizens, is very important.
My primary goal as an educator is to make sure students understand the complexity of issues and the difficult challenges of finding the best solutions.
When it comes to the use of weapons and control of weapon access, an emotionally loaded issue, it is especially important that this process be exactly as I describe it.
There are no easy "right" answers and heavily value laden "absolutely RIGHT" answers from either the left or the right, are counterproductive and become part of the problem.

Clearly this is something very important to you and I appreciate your willingness to engage on the issue. I hope you can also truly hear my point of view, as I have heard yours.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Like me, you are old enough to remember that special generation that raised us and the ones who preceded it dating back to the 19th century. The men leading society throughout those times thought entirely in absolute right and wrong with firm moral convictions.

I cannot see how the present fashion of entertaining gray areas has made for a stronger America. if anything, moral ambiguity has weakened it. Witness America's gradual slide from its position as the world's primary superpower, when right and wrong wasn't subject to debate. Now we have been reduced to same level as lesser cultures and societies in the spirit of some farcical "one world" collectivist notion.

I believe in American exceptionalism and sadly, too many teachers veer toward the revisionist view of our nation and emphasize the negative instead of the positive.

There is one moral virtue that seems to be lost among many Americans who hold these views, a moral virtue that used to be standard issue in any teacher's playbook, and that's showing gratitude for what we have been given.

And by the way, for those who forget, the Constitution was not composed with the idea that anyone's personal safety or personal prosperity was to be guaranteed as an entitlement.

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