Sunday, May 09, 2010

Misinterpreting events on purpose, so you don't have to!


The South Bend Tribune--and I'm not laying the blame entirely at their feet on this one--had an article today titled, "Teens taping fights: 'It shocks the conscience,' " a tale of teen bullying in South Bend (specifically between girls) and the recording of fights on cell phones and camcorders by other teens that are then uploaded onto the Internet for a variety of reasons that even the piece itself misses, or somehow ignores at its own peril. The reporting in the piece is generally very solid by all appearances and journalist Mary Kane Malone appears to have covered all of her bases, but as usual, the analysis and general thrust of it is all wrong, and that's the fault of a newspaper editor.

As a matter of fact, that's usually the case, but it also takes conglomerates reminding editors that they too have a mortgage to pay, so hyperbole it is.

I'm not going to name the names of the victims again and don't think that it was appropriate for the conglomerate-owned Tribune to list them but not their attackers. What is the precise hyperbole, or the hype of the article? This is incredible: the immorality of other kids standing by and recording the attacks/fights on their cell phones and posting them online, ostensibly to inflict more emotional harm and humiliation upon the victims. I'm certain most of these kids were acting in concert with the bullies, no argument there, but why is it a bad thing ultimately? The fact is that it's a good development regardless of the motives of most of the players.

Thirty years ago--and even as recent as fifteen--these acts of violence by children directed towards other children went unnoticed, they were rampant, and adults didn't want to deal with it anymore then than they do now--and that's the real heart of the article. People, especially authorities like principals, parents, police, and even juvenile professionals, don't want to deal with the issue of children inflicting violence upon each other. The trick is to change the subject or the focus:
The video of the fight had gone viral, the girl says, spreading from cell phone to cell phone. In less than a day, it seemed everyone in school had witnessed Chastity's humiliation. Teenage fights now include a new weapon: the camera phone. For parents, school administrators and law enforcement officials, the recorded fights provide a disturbing portrait of teenage violence that, until now, was only seen by those who witnessed it directly. "It shocks the conscience," said Capt. Phil Trent, spokesman for South Bend police. Parents of the victims say they are horrified at the gall of witnesses to flip out their phones and press "record" rather than intervene. But the kids? They call it entertainment. ... (The South Bend Tribune, 05.09.10)
This may or may not be true that it's "entertainment" and they're casting a blanket over the kids generally, as an entire demographic when there's no solid evidence--just a couple anecdotes--being proffered that the phenomena is widespread. Even if it were, how would they know why every kid recording an event was doing so?

But then, the article breaks down and admits that youth experts don't really know why the kids record the fights. Is that really the point? Again, from the article itself, this is the real point (my emphasis): "For parents, school administrators and law enforcement officials, the recorded fights provide a disturbing portrait of teenage violence that, until now, was only seen by those who witnessed it directly." Correct. Until very recently, the technology to record these events in a portable and easy manner was too expensive. Now, there's no running away from the problem since kids are unwisely (or very wisely) posting what is essentially incriminating evidence of children violently and criminally attacking other children. Before, this was impossible, and authorities could only rely on the hearsay of children, a morass of "he-said, she-said" recriminations that were once almost impossible to confirm, to corroborate. That's all changed now.

In short, many of these kids are doing the "right" thing, knowingly or unknowingly.

Some of these kids are alerting the rest of society that there are vicious sociopaths in our midst and showing us their actions. When it's done in the interest of society, of others, it's a very positive social act, a civic duty to report a crime. In the "wrong" hands they're also incriminating themselves and will probably be dragged into the tidal wave of civil suits that are likely to come out of these new technologies of easy dissemination, the power of the Internet writ large, as large as you can get.
"The (bullies) are basically making a recording of the evidence," providing a clear picture of who threw the first punch and how it ended, said William Bruinsma, director of the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center. Police say a videotaped shoving match posted online might be handled differently than one that is not recorded. "The same shoving match, being turned into a form of entertainment by a third party on the Internet is enough to make parents, school administrators and law enforcement" take a second look, said Trent, the South Bend police spokesman. ... (ibid)
It's not about entertainment. It's about adults not wanting to deal with it, but knowing that they now have no choice in the matter. That's called fighting change. In the past it was easy because there was no way to document these behaviors. Now there is. So, yes, the kids have a "new weapon," alright: they can document acts of violence by other children, even under the guise of indirect participation. Indeed, St. Joseph County prosecutor Michael Dvorak "...said video can provide useful pieces of evidence when building a case." Yet, the Oklahoma state legislature has recently made moves that would make posting the footage online illegal and could likely pass it soon.

The article tries--vainly--to suggest through implication that there's an upswing in violence by American girls, something that it has to admit isn't the case from FBI statistics covering 1995-through-2008. You can almost hear the editor of the South Bend Tribune trying to argue their twisted logic and simply capitulating to the facts in the end since they were and are irrefutable, leaving the remnants of the their thought process (if you want to call it that) in the body of the piece. Missing the point is the entire point. Society-at-large has never wanted to deal with the fact that the genesis of bullying in many cases is child abuse, usually by adults, often by relatives. America is hardly the only nation with this problem, and denial is part-and-parcel of the behaviors surrounding the phenomena.

When the economy is already divesting adults of their rights, those of children don't figure highly either. However, children are a powerful moral symbol of the future, the canaries in the coal mine of where we're going wrong with the social contract and where we've been going wrong since time immemorial. Most importantly, the Tribune article commits the cardinal sin of blaming the victim: "But what might appear to be a clear assault on video could have an untold back story, he said: How can police be sure the victim was not the attacker a day earlier in an unrecorded fight?" They never care about that in other circumstances. The real issue is that they don't want to deal with the problem, the real heart of a very poorly-constructed article that carries a sadly commonplace logic in our culture, a culture in denial on most fronts. After all, nobody likes getting caught...

One last thought: should we embed journalists in our nation's schools? It's not necessary. Soon, very soon, the coverage of domestic violence will surpass that of the wars in the Middle East. Think about why.