How Media Exaggerated Kids’ Witnessing Shootings

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Last week, the Washington Post reported on a national study about kids and guns. The last sentence said 4.2 percent of U.S. kids have witnessed a shooting in the past year. One reader asked the Dallas Morning News, “Does it really sound believable that one kid out of every 24 has witnessed a shooting in the last year? I think not, unless it was on TV, in a movie, or in a video game. In that case it would probably be more like 100 percent.”

Morning News editor Mike Wilson tells “the unfortunate story of how a couple of teams of researchers and a whole bunch of news organizations, including this one, unintentionally but thoroughly misinformed the public.”

It started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire Prof. David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.” They conducted phone interviews with parents and kids around the U.S., and included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

This month, researchers in another study reported in the journal Pediatrics quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly. They said, “Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the U.S. have witnessed a shooting in the past year.” Finkelhor says the actual question researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?” The question was about much more than shootings. The Finkelhor study didn’t say anything about kids “witnessing” shootings.

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