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
- 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 Pitfall||Why 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:
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.
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.
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 .
|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.
Oversimplifying. Journalists’ efforts to simplify complex bullying issues for readers can be unintentionally misleading. Examples of nuances the public needs to understand include:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Overstating the problem
Magid, L. (2011, October 6). Exaggerating bullying could increase bullying . 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). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make . 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
Bindley, K. (2012). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make . 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 . The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Blaming/criminalizing those who bully
Bindley, K. (2012). Bullying and suicide: The dangerous mistake we make .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.
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
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.