Best Practices

What the Public Needs to Know About Bullying

Although concern about it is growing, bullying isn’t an epidemic. In fact, national rates have decreased slightly in recent years.

Bullying does not cause suicide; it’s only one of many factors involved.

Bullying can affect any young person, but there are characteristics and circumstances that put certain youth at higher risk.

Each bullying incident is a complex interaction. While there might be one “ringleader,” the bystanders often are involved.

Cyberbullying is not nearly as common as people think.

Some prevention strategies seem to help, and researchers continue to learn about what works.

Although 49 states have anti-bullying legislation, bullying is not illegal.

StopBullying.gov provides information on what bullying is, what cyberbullying is, who is at risk, and how you can prevent and respond to bullying.

Reporting on bullying poses challenges for journalists and other content creators. It involves reporting accurately on situations with complex emotions and cloudy details. Accurately informing the public is increasingly important as research suggests that certain trends in media coverage have the potential to do harm. Here is a list of best practices to assist journalists and other content creators:

  • Question which stories about bullying to run
  • Get the entire, balanced story and present it accurately
  • Use knowledgeable sources and reputable resources
  • Include information that many stories miss
  • Use nuanced, accurate journalism to make the world safer for our youth
  • Consider the standards that will shape your coverage of bullying issues before news breaks

This section also features examples of balanced and accurate coverage on bullying.

Question which stories about bullying to run

When considering a piece on bullying, ask a few key questions:

  • Does the behavior actually meet the definition of bullying?
    For example, though it can take many different forms, bullying is usually an ongoing pattern of behavior, and it involves youth up through high school age. Often journalists and others use the term “bullying” when referring to behaviors in the workplace or other situations involving adults, but these situations technically are not bullying. See the definition of bullying.
  • How will this coverage affect the children and families involved?
    Balance the public’s need to know with the consequences (intended or otherwise) for those involved. For example, even if a family strongly desires to tell their story through the media, consider whether media coverage is the best way to help. Could it backfire or create problems for the child or family?
  • Does the story reflect reality?
    Unusual cases may interest audiences, but putting them in context by also including the facts about bullying helps avoid misinforming the public about what is really going on among our youth. For example, coverage might include the fact that the majority of young people are not involved in bullying and do not support it. Or, in a story that involves bullying of LGBT youth, the writer could take care not to imply that bullying drives LGBT youth to suicide. The reality is that bullying is just one of several risk factors for suicide among LGBT youth.
  • Will this coverage help audiences better understand how they can contribute to preventing bullying?
    Although researchers are still searching for more effective programs, there are concrete steps that schools, parents, students, and other community members can take to prevent bullying. Many of the most innovative responses to bullying are found on the local level. Consider highlighting these solutions and success stories, in addition to more typical stories on bullying incidents or new legislation.

Get the entire, balanced story and present it accurately.

  • Try to talk to everyone involved, including bystanders and the young people accused of bullying.
    If that is not possible, balance the story by including the risk factors for engaging in bullying, and the effects all youth involved face. See the Columbia School of Journalism’s Dart Center for guidelines for interviewing children Site exit disclaimer.

    Be aware that school officials are limited by policies and laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) Site exit disclaimer and can’t usually comment on specific bullying incidents. Still, try to talk with officials about their bullying prevention policies and activities.

    Also, in cases of cyberbullying, attempt to understand the situation on- and off-line. Young people who are being cyberbullied are often bullied in person as well. Remember, the technology is not to blame—it’s how it is used that can cause harm.
  • State the facts.
    Offer a literal recounting of the events. Try not to assign blame without having all of the information. Instead of overused terms like “epidemic,” focus on reporting actual numbers and facts to let readers draw their own conclusions. Put numbers in context.
  • Cover bullying as a public health issue.
    Because it affects the health and well-being of many youth, bullying is a public health problem. Consider covering it as you would cover other public health issues (e.g., HIV/AIDS, flu) and including in your stories:
    • The definition of bullying
    • The scope of the problem based on verified statistics
    • Groups that may be at increased risk of bullying and being bullied (“risk factors”)
    • Warning signs  that bullying is happening (“symptoms”)
    • Protective factors that prevent young people from getting involved in bullying (“vaccine”) or protect them from adverse effects when they are involved
    • What your audience can do to help prevent bullying
  • Remember that bullying affects people’s lives and emotions.
    Although their pain may make a great story, it’s still pain. This principle applies to those who bully as well as those who are bullied. We cannot assume we know who they are and what they are feeling. Ask and don’t be afraid to empathize.

Use knowledgeable sources and reputable resources.

Sources make the story. So does accurate information. Without these, journalists and other content creators risk their coverage misinforming the public and doing more harm than good.

  • Find an expert. A bullying prevention expert can help ensure you have the facts about this complex problem. Other sources—principals, teachers, guidance counselors, parents, students—can round out your piece by relaying their own experiences. See a checklist of characteristics in the Expert Help section.
  • Use verified statistics and research-based facts. A web search will reveal lots of misinformation about bullying. The Facts About Bullying section offers up-to-date information for your review.

Include information that many stories miss.

Analysis of media articles has shown that certain elements of bullying stories are often missing, including:

  • Information about those who bully. This can be very difficult to obtain, but at least represent what generally is known about youth who bully, including the many risk factors they face, the negative effects bullying has on these youth, and the facts that youth who bully are not all alike and some are also bullied themselves.
  • Effects of bullying. Explain the multitude of problems associated with bullying—not just suicide—such as absenteeism, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression. Many of these effects can last into adulthood. Also include effects on the school and the community.
  • Specific ways for individuals to help. Instead of general advice (e.g., “support your children”), or focusing on prevention through anti-bullying legislation or policies, offer specific action steps your audience can take. See prevent bullying for tips.

See more about oversimplifying bullying stories in What to Avoid.

Use nuanced, accurate journalism to make the world safer for kids.

Without information about prevention, media coverage implies that bullying has no solution, a misrepresentation of the current state of the research. Audiences are left with only a sense of hopelessness. Consider the following approaches:

  • Give practical advice on how to prevent bullying tailored for your audience.
  • Highlight successful bullying prevention initiatives. Though no “silver bullet” approach has been identified, plenty of schools and communities have made progress.
  • Discuss new prevention research. Just as with other public health issues, keep the public informed of progress and setbacks documented in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Point to prevention resources. See the list of resources available on StopBullying.gov. For stories that discuss suicide, mention the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Site exit disclaimer, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Stress the positive actions, reactions, and interventions by the school or others.

Consider the standards that will shape your coverage of bullying issues before news breaks.
Be prepared for fast-breaking stories with ethical guidelines already in place.

Examples of Balanced and Accurate Coverage

Below is a collection of articles that reflect balanced and accurate reporting on bullying, organized by type of story: