Youth violence is a major social issue that has gained prominence increasingly over the last half century. The awareness raised concerning it seems congruent with the level of penetration of the mass media. This may have two inferences; that prominence has grown purely because more people are exposed to stories on the news regarding youth violence, or that the penetration of mass media somehow has an impact on the level of incidences of violence. This paper approaches the subject from a case point, viewing one incident of teenage aggravated assault in Florida through respective lenses of communication theories.
On the 13th of October 2009, the story of 5 teenage boys being charged with burning their colleague after he reported a theft they committed was featured on most, if not all, of the major news channels in America, from CBS to ABC and the increasingly popular and hugely influential new media forum The Huffington Post. The story is one of unusual brutality, particularly for the age of the teenagers involved.
The reporting of the incident was largely factual, but even in such reporting can be detected numerous influences that are best analyzed, in my view, using 4 of the 12 communication theories I’ve learnt so far. The first is ‘Gate-keeping’, the practice of news editors to sort stories and how they are reported at every stage of the process. The second is attitude and attitude changes – the cognitive, affective and behavioral results of exposure to mass media. The third is agenda setting, the proposition that mass media does set priorities on issues, even though they might not always people’s take concerning said issues. The final theory is Uses and Gratifications, which in this case will apply to me as an individual consumer of news, seeing as I consciously sought out the story to enable me satisfactorily complete a semester final paper.
Michael Brewer was a regular high school kid before the 12th of October 2009; he had a circle of friends, hangs out at the mall and loved video games. His love for video games, however landed him in trouble when, reportedly, he acquired a video game on credit from a schoolmate. He was unable to pay for it and this led the schoolmate to steal a bicycle belonging to Brewer’s father on Sunday the 11th of October 2009 as payback for the money owed. Brewer reported the theft to the police, the culprit briefly arrested, the bike taken back and the culprit released to his parents the same day.
Michael knew he would have a nasty run-in with the schoolmate (we are not given the specific name, but is one of the 5 names released by the police after the incident, and thus it is hard to ascertain) and his gang of four others. He therefore skipped school on Monday, instead going to visit his friend at Lime Tree Village apartments, located in Deerfield Beach. As he was sitting by the swimming pool, the schoolmate and four of his friends appeared and, reportedly, the leader of the group (the culprit in the bike incident) commanded “pour it on him, pour it on him!”. At this, 15-year old Denver Jarvis poured rubbing alcohol on Michael. Mendez, another member of the gang, lit a cigarette lighter and threw it at the victim, setting him on fire. The latter screamed out, attracting the attention of a neighbor who came out with a fire extinguisher and put out the flames. Michael reaped off his shirt and jumped into the swimming pool while the culprits fled. He was later taken to hospital, and is expected to recuperate for 5 months. The police charged the five suspects on Tuesday 13th October 2009 with aggravated battery charges, and reported that they were considering charging the victims as adults under provisions in Florida law. Mendez, who lit the fire, was separately charged with attempted murder. Deerfield Police spokesman Sgt. Steve Feeley described the incident as “a horrible case”, and as “shocking to the community”. Brewer’s mother, brother and sister and the rescuing neighbor were interviewed and all expressed disbelief at how anyone could carry out a crime so “heinous”. Police also reported that the suspects, as they were being interviewed, were laughing about the incident. Only one of them, Denver, expressed remorse over his actions.
Analysis of Media Dynamics
The story was very emotive and attracted widespread reactions. An example is ABC’s online article on attracted 166 comments, most expressing outrage at how society had come to this new low. The incident featured lots of television and online coverage. At first the facts were simply reported as they were, but inevitably the reaction soon took center stage. In today’s liberalized information age, the most influential voice is the individual person with the power of the blog and ability to comment on news articles.
The combined effect on news consumers of the shocking incident was fuelled by the consumers themselves, as they wrote emotive comments and started up blogs on the issue. This raised the profile of the incident to such a level that individuals and media houses took the initiative to find out the level of violence at Brewer’s school. It was reported by the Florida Department of Education that in 2009, there were 96 incidents of bullying, or roughly one in every two school days. On April 22nd, the victim, Michael Brewer appeared on the Today Show. He mentioned that his school, Deerfield Beach Middle School was “terrible”, alluding to the numerous cases of bullying at the school. The outrage from the incident led to calls for action against bullying in schools. The Principal at Brewer’s school was followed up on a few months later, where she mentioned that they had managed to bring down the incidences by half.
Relation to Communication Theories
The Michael Brewer story, as was disseminated through most networks, was an Associated Press (AP) version. For this reason, most of the news sources were largely homogenous in their content. One noteworthy point in the AP reporting was in the fact that the interviews conducted were lopsided; for some reason, the journalist only interviewed the family of the victim, the police and the heroic neighbor, all sympathetic to the victim, or at the very least neutral to the situation. We hear nothing from the culprits’ families, despite there being more of them, seeing as they were 5 in number. I doubt that all of them declined interviews, and even if any did decline, it was not reported. I believe this is a classic case of gate-keeping on the part of an AP editor, probably aimed at maximizing sympathy for the victim while demonizing the acts of the five bullies.Attitudes and Attitude Changes
The news created in the wake of the initial reporting reflected the effect that “gate-kept” stories such as Brewer’s can create on people’s attitudes. People across the board believe that bullying is wrong, and are vocal against the causes that lead to them. The reactions to the story, as I have read them, have been emotive and condemning, reflecting society’s outrage at incidences such as these. Their subsequent behavior given their feelings is to create blogs and comment angrily on news websites. But such attitudes can be dulled or moderated when sufficient information is given from the bullies’ side, explaining their upbringing and the school environment. It is my belief that had the statistics on the school’s bullying record been included in the original article, most of the outrage would have been directed at school authorities and parent rather than on the offending gang.Uses and Gratifications Theory
While I did hear of this story briefly when it broke in October of 2009, I never gave it much attention, considering it just another case of teenage cruelty, one among so many others that happen daily. With this assignment however, I was prompted to actively seek out the story and get as much information about it as I could. I had a purpose for which I was looking for the news, and I dwelt on it in great detail in order to furnish this purpose. Other people that might find purpose in searching it out include education officials, children’s rights officials and politicians. I believe this theory applies to most news articles; there’s always some section of society or other with a special interest in a story.Agenda Setting Theory
That the story brought the issue of bullying to the national limelight is unquestionable. The best way this is demonstrable is in the fact that Brewer was featured on The Today Show; a high profile program that only covers the most prominent issues that society is grappling with. The first article by AP has therefore exhibited its power in bringing the issue of bullying to the fore of national debate. This however does not mean that everyone’s opinion on the issue is uniform; some would put more blame on the culprits, some would place more on the parents, other on the school, others on violent TV programs/ movies/ video games, others on the education system in general, etc. Thus the agenda has been set, but not the attitudes and opinions of consumers.
The Brewer incident is an emotive one, made more so by the manner in which AP reported the incident. A number of communication theories apply to it, including gate-keeping, attitudes and attitude change, uses and gratifications and agenda setting.
Associated Press (Oct 13 2009), Five Charged With Setting Teen on Fire, retrieved 26th May 2010, from www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/13/…/main5382229.shtml
Virginia P. R. (March 1999), Clarifying Communication Theories – A Hands-One Approach, Wiley-Blackwell, 348pp.