Manufacturing Fear

In a surreal and tragic two weeks, Orange County's press relentlessly whipped up terror that Littleton-style school slaughter perpetrated by dark-side fuzzy-lipped gunboys brandishing heavy steel “could happen here” (even though none had) and then was blindsided by the county's first real school murders: a grisly massacre of preschoolers by a middle-aged man wielding a Cadillac.

The post-Littleton your-school's-next drumroll by authorities and the media crossed the line from reporting reality to fabricating fear. An April 27 front-page survey by the Times Orange County Poll showed half the parents barraged with dire media warnings that guns infest local schools were—surprise—frightened that guns infest local schools. But half weren't, testament to how folks in this county, even amid the fear frenzy, insist on thinking for themselves.

How much were parents' fears inflamed by media hype? For starters, the Times began its poll on April 22, the same day the Times' news story “OC Schools Log 128 Gun Crimes in 3-Year Span” ran on Page 1. For those who read past the headline, the story was not that alarming. It reported 63 “gun incidents” in 1995-1996, 35 in 1996-1997 and 30 in 1997-1998. None involved bullets shot at anyone. “A lot of them were minor BB-gun or air-gun incidents and after-school vandalism,” Timesreporter and story author Jack Leonard wrote. “When you hear about 'guns in schools,' a lot of it sounds worse than it is.”

Thirty “gun crimes” involving zero casualties among 400,000 students in a year, though lamentable compared to “no gun incidents,” is indeed “shocking”—shockingly few in a county where law enforcement responds to a real case of gun violence in a home three times per week, where hospitals and coroners receive a bullet-perforated body every 40 hours, where 2,500 gun deaths and 4,000 gunshot injuries occurred in the past decade in just about every place except a school.

Pollsters and reporters denied the school-gun poll and school-gun story were linked. “I did not use the Littleton incident to sell the Times a poll,” Times Orange County Poll vice president Cheryl Katz said. “Rather, we were scheduled to go into the field on that date on an unrelated topic, and I added questions on an important national-news event that had just taken place. I derived no additional profit from these questions.”

Leonard said the story had been in the works for months and was not timed to coincide with the poll. “As far as I know, the two had nothing to do with each other,” he said. “I'd think those who read the story would realize gun incidents are not prevalent in schools here.”

That was not the impression given by Katz and the Times' April 27 front-page story (“Parents Fear For Their Children on Campuses”) on the poll's results. “I found the numbers on the prevalence of guns in Orange County schools to be quite shocking,” Katz hyperventilated in fluent media shriek. “That nearly half of the parents think that guns are present is very chilling.”

Reporter David Haldane added alarmed quotes from scared parents (none of whom knew anyone who had actually seen a gun in a school) and zero quotes from the 50 percent of parents who were not scared. Neither Katz nor the story explained the shocking and chilling fact that though campus gun incidents are rare, shootings nil, and parents never heard of any actual cases, half the parents surveyed thought schools were awash in firepower.

“Campus violence is such a random, unpredictable event that it strikes fear into the hearts of parents everywhere,” Katz declared. She was right, though not in a way anyone predicted. On the following Monday, a crazed 39-year-old crashed his car into a crowded Costa Mesa preschool playground, crushing a 3- and a 4-year-old to death, leaving two toddlers in critical condition, and banging up three more people.

The slaughter would have been bloodier still if the car hadn't rammed a tree and stalled. Police said the remorseless driver, who was charged with murder, said he wanted to “execute . . . innocent” children as revenge for his former girlfriend's rejection—a motive that suddenly made Littleton's deranged Nazi trenchcoaters gunning for mean jocks look halfway sane in comparison.

Until Costa Mesa's massacre, no one had ever been murdered in an Orange County school, so far as our search of the Register's index and interviews with police and school-security veterans could determine.* Of course, politicians, experts, and the national press exploit fear of teenage school killers in the wake of Littleton and in anticipation of yet another White House “youth violence” splash. But they just couldn't get excited about preschoolers mowed down by an enraged midlifer. The tragedy barely made the national briefs.

The rabid hype over the hypothetical possibility of school murder by students vs. the indifferent response (beyond the local press) to real school murders committed by adults shows how unreal America's violence perceptions have become. A clue to how this climate developed entails yet another irony.

The Times Orange County Poll is conducted by Baldassare N Associates, a firm founded by UC Irvine social-ecology professor Mark Baldassare, who also conducts the Orange County Annual Survey. As a student in Baldassare's excellent community surveys class three years ago, I helped conduct focus groups to design the annual survey.

In one focus group, I asked a dozen residents to estimate how much of Orange County's violent crime is committed by youths under age 18. The average guess was 65 percent—even though no one in the group had been personally victimized by a youth or knew anyone who had been. According to law-enforcement records, the true youth contribution to the county's violence is 12 percent to 14 percent. Residents thought youths commit five times more violence than they do—a devastating indictment of authorities' and the media's relentless hype of “youth violence.”

I lobbied Baldassare to include the question on the 1996 Annual Survey to expose just how irresponsible official and media hyperbole had become. No go. But when it came time to help the press hype student violence even more wildly in this month's schools-and-guns poll (which Katz said Baldassare was not personally involved in conducting), Baldassare Associates' pollsters were all too ready to help the media inflame the issue even more.

In his 1986 book, Trouble in Paradise: The Suburban Transformation in America, Baldassare points out how Orange County residents' exaggerated “fear of crime,” even though local crime rates “are well below those in other California metropolitan areas,” reflects fear of “an increasingly diverse population.” What Baldassare didn't say was that academics and professionals have been crucial allies of the media in stirring up those fears.

*If you know of any murders or shootings that took place in an Orange County public school or on a school campus during school hours, or at a school event, please correct Mike Males, mm****@so*****.edu">mm****@so*****.edu, a social-ecology doctoral candidate at UC Irvine.

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