Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jonesboro Revisited: The Popular Media

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

This series began with a news story that the National Rifle Association (NRA) has begun a program designed to lure young children into an appreciation of the destructive power of firearms.  That venerable "gun rights" organization has recently begun sponsoring a program to update classic children's literature, such as the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.  The updated versions feature the child characters - and Grandma - carrying guns and supposedly showing children that they don't have to fear wolves and witches if they have the foresight to bear arms when they wander through the woods.

The NRA is grooming children to become paranoid adults who will spend large portions of their incomes buying guns - and gun sales are the lifeblood of the NRA.

At almost the exact same time that I came across the piece on the NRA and its fairy tales, I also stumbled upon some old materials that I had collected and papers that I had written while at the University of Missouri in the late 1990's pursuing a graduate degree in social work.  When I began this blog in 2007, one of the purposes had been to collect and preserve various things that I had already written in a place where they could be easily located and accessed by any of my descendants or future researchers who had use for them.

The materials that I came across while rooting through the garage included a collection of articles on the Jonesboro school shooting which occurred in March of 1998 toward the end of my first year in the two-year masters program, as well as three small papers that I had written on the topic:  a compilation of what the local and national media had to say on the topic, an interview with a juvenile officer on the topic of violent juveniles, and a paper summarizing my findings.  After carefully rereading that collection of writing, I decided to re-explore Jonesboro and present that material here.  It will run over the next three days, beginning with look at how the popular media covered the horrific crime back when it occurred.

(Note:  At the time this paper was written, the Internet was just beginning to come into full-flower as a quick link to numerous media outlets.  The professor for whom this paper was compiled, an older gentleman, had visions of his students spending long hours digging in the dark recesses of the rows and rows of card catalogue cabinetry at the university library, and to some extent that was necessary, but large amounts of news and opinion were also readily available on the Internet.  This experience marked a turning point with my familiarity with the new medium.)

Violent Children:
A Brief Analysis of the Popular Media
and the Internet

Rocky G. Macy
4 May 1998

       Jonesboro.  A sleepy mid-sized Arkansas city one minute, a metaphor for violent youth the next.  Who could have imagined on the morning of March 24th, 1998, that before the children of Jonesboro boarded the buses to return home that evening that their lives would have been interrupted by gunfire, death, and a media onslaught?

       While violence in American schools is becoming so common that its occurrence tends to get lost somewhere behind page one, Jonesboro was shocking and bloody to such a degree that it forced the topic back into the headlines.  The coverage of the massacre was told in color photos, words of anguish, indignant editorials, comparisons with similar crimes, views of experts, and voluminous amounts of public opinion.  The popular media became a fount of information on the topic of violent children.

       The newspapers that I checked regularly in preparing this assignment were The Columbia Missourian, The Columbia Tribune, The Maneater (the MU student newspaper), The Kansas City Star, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and USA Today.  All of those publications except for The Maneater offered similar news stories regarding the event.  Most also provided information on the ten other school shootings that had occurred in the United States in the five years preceding Jonesboro.

       The Columbia newspapers devoted some space to addressing the issue of violence in schools and provided information on what local schools were doing to address the problem.  All of the Missouri newspapers carried stories about the bill in the state legislature to allow citizens of the state to carry concealed weapons.  The papers from Kansas City, St. Louis, and USA Today carried pieces on the psychological aspects of violent youth.   The Maneater had a column about youth violence that focused on Jonesboro and a 1994 Chicago incident in which two young boys dropped a friend out of a seventh story window.

       All of the newspapers had editorial opinion dealing with violent youth as well as responses from the readers in the form of "Letters to the Editor."  USA Today complimented a couple of its stories with charts and graphs.

       The tabloids had a couple of articles focusing on troubled youth.  National Examiner told its readers in two separate issues that child beauty JonBenet Ramsey was murdered by her eleven-year-old brother, Burke.  The same publication also had a story entitled Daughter of Satan that focused on a young lady who supposedly recruited other teens to join her on a cross-country killing spree after watching the movie Natural Born Killers.

       The news magazines, much like the larger newspapers, used Jonesboro as a springboard for a wide-ranging examination of violence in society.  Time and Newsweek each had a cover featuring a photo of an armed Drew Golden (the younger of the Jonesboro shooters), and while Drew failed to make the cover of U.S. News and World Report, that magazine did carry a full page color photo of the youth, again armed, inside of its covers.   (The sheer number of armed family photos of Drew that found their way into the press was actually reminiscent of the endless deluge of JonBenet photographs that saturated the media for so long.)

       The electronic media also had a lot to say about kids and violence.  National Public Radio featured news and editorials about violent children for a couple of weeks following Jonesboro.  Several of the talk shows have focused on violent children over the past couple of years.  Geraldo Rivera has had Baby Face Killers, Teen Thrill Killers:  Why?, and What Do You Do with Kids Who Kill?, and a week after Jonesobro Oprah Winfrey aired a program entitled When Children Commit Crimes.

       The popular media focused on several areas:  the killings at Jonesboro and related news stories, safety issues for children and schools, the psychological make-up of violent youth, legal issues related to the crimes of kids, and the causes of violence.  News stories provide information and opinion.  As a rule they don't solve problems, but the news and views expressed by the media do focus the public's attention on problems and provide the grist for dialogue - and dialogue can eventually lead to the resolution of any social ill.

The Internet

       All of the major news organizations have homes on the Internet.  I was able to read Time's complete coverage of Jonesboro on-line several days before the magazine appeared on newsstands.  The two that I used most, however, were CNN and MSNBC.  Both not only had complete news coverage, but they also featured numerous links to related stories.  It was quite easy to jump to stories about other school shootings or more generic stories about crime and punishment, causes of violence, or articles on the psychological make-up of homicidal youth.

       CNN and MSNBC also employ message boards to collect and distribute public opinion on many contemporary issues.  CNN posted a message board immediately after Jonesboro that quickly gathered over 8,000 messages on things related to the tragedy - condolences, expressions of grief, rants for and against gun control, anger, and many, many questions.  But there were answers also - straightforward, homegrown solutions to the myriad of questions that swirl around the subject of kids who kill.  CNN had another message board on the subject of violence on television and in the movies.  Again, the responses were a insightful as they were unique, forthright, and honest.  Message boards on the Internet are quickly becoming America's Main Street - a place where news and opinion can race from person to person gaining passion and insight as they go.

       The Internet is an interactive encyclopedia that never goes out of date.  I used it for this assignment to locate information on juvenile justice, legislation, violence in the media, school shootings, and guns.  I also used the Internet to access professional articles through the University of Missouri libraries.

       E-mail and listservs add to the value of the Internet as an opinion gathering and generating tool.  Graduate students in the University of Missouri's MSW program used their listserv to comment on Jonesboro and related topics for several weeks after the shooting.  Their comments were heterogeneous and as interesting as those expressed by the general populace on the message boards.

       The Internet is a marvelous repository of information and news - some accurate, some less so - and an uncommonly well stocked marketplace of opinion.  It is the history, and knowledge, and culture of all humanity reduced to binary code and carried on electrical impulses to the edges of the planet and depths of our minds.  The Internet is our umbilical cord to cyberspace, a lifeline to the future and a tether to the past.  Its value as a tool for research cannot be overestimated, or for that matter, even calculated.

(Tomorrow:  Notes from an interview with a juvenile officer on the subject of violent juveniles.)

No comments: