What to Avoid

Many studies show that the media has the power to influence the public’s view of the world. That’s why it’s so important to get messages about bullying right—especially in an era when misinformation can spread across the Internet in an instant. Here are some common pitfalls:

  • Overstating the problem
  • Stating or implying that bullying caused a suicide
  • Oversimplifying issues related to a bullying incident
  • Using under-qualified sources
  • Blaming/criminalizing those who bully
  • Sensationalizing
  • Excluding prevention information and resources

Journalists, bloggers, and other content creators who avoid these problems can offer their audiences accurate, quality coverage while also helping to prevent bullying.

Common Pitfalls in Bullying Coverage

A task force of noted journalists and experts in bullying prevention and related fields developed the chart below. Their sole goal is to help journalists avoid problems evident in current coverage.

Common PitfallWhy It Can be Harmful

Overstating the problem. With so much discussion of bullying and an Internet rife with false information and misleading statistics, it can be difficult to keep the issue in perspective.

Unfortunately, a majority of bullying stories give an inaccurate picture of the prevalence of the problem. The facts are:

  • Bullying is not an epidemic. Rates of bullying nationally have not increased. There may be a local increase in bullying or awareness of bullying, but even this statement requires more reliable evidence than a few striking cases.
  • Most young people do not experience or support bullying behavior.
  • Many types of aggressive behavior are in fact not bullying (e.g., one-time physical fights, online arguments, incidents between adults).
  • Cyberbullying is less prevalent than other forms of bullying.

Creating the impression that bullying is a bigger problem than it is spreads misinformation, which in media reports raises many ethical and professional concerns. Some experts contend that reports depicting bullying as widespread and rapidly growing make youth and adults more likely to see it as common and less likely to try to stop it.

  • Adults accept it as part of growing up and think nothing can be done.
  • Youth think it is okay because “everyone does it.”

Also, when people don’t understand the actual dimension of a problem, they can make mistaken conclusions or even turn to the wrong solutions.

Finally, the idea that bullying is “everywhere” can contribute to irrational fears that can lead some to overprotective or anxious parenting. Some studies show that anxious parenting may harm children as they grow up.

Related Research and Stories:

 

Bennett, J. (2010, October 1). Is the “bullying epidemic” a media myth? Site exit disclaimer The Daily Beast.

Magid, L. (2011, October 6).Exaggerating bullying could increase bullying Site exit disclaimer. The Huffington Post.

Perkins, H.W.; Craig, D.W.; and Perkins, J.M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes Intergroup Relations, 14: 703.

Schneider, S.K.; O’Donnell, L.; Stueve, A.; and Coulter, R. (2012). Cyberbullying, school bullying, and psychological distress: A regional census of high school students. American Journal of Public Health, 102(1): 171-177.

Smerconish, M. (2010, October 21). Media help to hype perception of bullying Site exit disclaimer. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Smith, J.R.; Louis, W.R. (2008). Do as we say and as we do: The interplay of descriptive and injunctive group norms in attitude-behavior relationship. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47(Pt 4): 647-666.

Stearns, P. N. (2003). Anxious parents: A history of modern childrearing in America. New York University Press: New York.

Stating or implying that bullying caused a suicide. The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex. Many media reports take short cuts, presenting bullying as the “cause” or “reason” for a suicide. The facts tell a different story.

A thorough investigation usually reveals that the cause of a suicide is complex and multifacted. If bullying is involved, it is one of many factors.

Read more about bullying and suicide.

See recommendations for reporting on suicide Site exit disclaimer.

Stories that say or insinuate that bullying caused a suicide can create a belief that suicide is a normal, even inevitable result of bullying. This may lead to “contagion”—additional deaths or cluster suicides that occur after heavy media coverage of the issue.

Related Research and Stories:

 

Bazelon, E. (2012, July 20). What really happened to Phoebe Prince? Site exit disclaimer Slate.

Bindley, K. (2012). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make Site exit disclaimer. The Huffington Post.

Gould, M.S.; Midle, J.B.; Insel, G.; and Kleinman, M. (2007). Suicide reporting content analysis: abstract development and reliability. Crisis, 28(4):165–174.

Kim, Y.S. Bullying and suicide. A review. Int J Adolesc Med Health, 20(2):133.

ReportingOnSuicide.org. (2012). “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide Site exit disclaimer.”

Oversimplifying. Journalists’ efforts to simplify complex bullying issues for readers can be unintentionally misleading. Examples of nuances the public needs to understand include:

  • The same young person can play the roles of “bully” and “victim” in different situations.
  • Bullying affects all types of youth; it is not restricted to LGBT youth, although they are a higher risk.
  • Simple or one-time solutions (e.g., school assemblies) are not likely to work.

Reports that exclude nuances paint an inaccurate and incomplete picture of real-world bullying. This perpetuates myths and may lead parents, educators, and others to miss the bullying in front of them.

Citing unrealistically simple solutions also can hinder efforts to stop bullying. When people observe that these solutions fail, they can give up trying.

Oversimplifying can also lead to unfair anger or resentment, because it enables people to draw conclusions without the full facts. It can result in such problems as blaming a school principal or a parent for a bullying incident.

Related Research and Stories:  

 

Bindley, K. (2012). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make Site exit disclaimer. The Huffington Post.

Sciacca, L.M.; Pflum S.; Goldblum P.; Testa, R.J.; Wang, F., Jimenez, C.; Bongar, B. (In Press). Media representation of bullying-related suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth. Journal of Adolescent Health.

Smerconish, M. (2010, October 21). Media help to hype perception of bullying Site exit disclaimer. The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Using under-qualified sources. It can be difficult to identify true experts in bullying prevention, suicide, and other newsworthy topics. Spokespeople may have expertise in other areas, for example from working as educators, or from personal experience. But they can lack deep knowledge of these complex issues and lead you to misinform your audience.

Check out the Expert Help section.

Poor sources can introduce inaccuracies into reports, which readers and viewers may take as fact and share broadly.

Misinformation perpetuates the problem.

Blaming/criminalizing those who bully. Many times youth who bully are not mentioned in media reports. Some reports paint a one-sided picture of bullying situations, quickly blaming those who bully or even portraying them as criminals. They also may blame the school.

This may be due to laws like FERPA that prevent school officials from providing information about bullying cases. These restrictions protect youth, but make it difficult for journalists to get information about what actually happened in a specific bullying incident.

The facts are:

  • Youth who bully often have been bullied themselves.
  • Bullying involves a complex dynamic between youth in groups; attributing blame can be problematic.
  • Bullying is not a crime, even when a young person involved dies by suicide.
  • Youth who bully need help too so they can learn to use power in appropriate ways.

Portraying those who bully in a harshly negative light shuts down healthy dialogue. Parents of youth who have exhibited some bullying behaviors may be unwilling to participate in prevention. Teachers, counselors, and others also can write them off as “no good.”

A report implying that bullying led to a suicide can create public pressure for an inappropriate criminal investigation or civil lawsuit, and even brand the youth who bullied as a “murderer.”

Some experts fear that young people who are bullied may see suicide as a way to punish those who have bullied them.

Blaming also may damage the entire school community, and in the case of suicide, limit or negatively impact healing.

Related Research and Stories:

 

Bindley, K. (2012). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make Site exit disclaimer. The Huffington Post.

Carpenter, S. (2011). Lessons from a former bully. Detroit Free Press.

Rodkin, P. P. C. (2008). Who bullies whom? Social status asymmetries by victim gender. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 32(6): 473-485.

Swearer, S. S. M. (2001). Psychosocial correlates in bullying and victimization the relationship between depression, anxiety, and bully/victim status. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2-3): 95-121.

Sensationalizing. Journalists must interest readers. Bullying incidents generally are not covered unless they involve serious injury, a death, many young people, or some other act that makes them newsworthy.

Attention-grabbing headlines often use language that adds to the dramatic element in the coverage.

Often cyberbullying stories are particularly sensational.

The emphasis on the most tragic results of bullying can encourage overprotective or anxious parenting, which studies have shown may harm children as they grow up.

Cyberbullying is misperceived as more prevalent and threatening than facts suggest. Resulting efforts to prevent bullying may focus in the wrong place.

Sensational stories about cyberbullying can lead adults to mistakenly blame the technology and take away access to this important social and learning tool.

The focus on dramatic bullying events misses an opportunity for coverage of positive themes about new research findings or progress achieved through prevention.

Related Research and Stories:

 

Schneider, S.K.; O’Donnell, L.; Stueve, A.; and Coulter, R. (2012). Cyberbullying, school bullying, and psychological distress: A regional census of high school students. American Journal of Public Health, 102(1): 171-177.

Stearns, P. N. (2003). Anxious parents: A history of modern childrearing in America. New York University Press: New York.

Failing to include prevention information and resources. Research has not arrived at what definitely works to prevent bullying, but many media reports do not offer the public what is known.

Media reports often focus on prevention through anti-bullying legislation and policies, or contain very general ideas instead of more specific tips for parents, schools, and youth.

Also, many do not refer to quality public resources, such as StopBullying.gov.

The absence of information about effective prevention strategies for youth and parents implies that bullying has no solution, and does not help move toward one.

Related Research and Stories:

 

Frey, K. K. S. (2005). Reducing playground bullying and supporting beliefs: An experimental trial of the steps to respect program. Developmental Psychology, 41(3): 479-491.

Waasdorp, T. T. E. (2012). The impact of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on bullying and peer rejection: A randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(2): 149-156.

Windber Research Institute, Center Safe Schools, & Clemson University. (2011). Bullying prevention: The impact on Pennsylvania schoolchildren. Program Report of the Highmark Foundation.