What made the news

It’s no big secret that what people think has a lot to do with what they watch and read. While ideologies and other belief systems also underlie public opinion, there is no denying the role of “news” in shaping contemporary worldviews – sometimes in direct opposition to empirical data.

For example, while many parents now fear sending junior off to school each morning, the odds of a child being shot in Sandy Hook fashion stand at less than one in a million, as it has for decades. If anything, schools recently have been getting safer.

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After reaching a high of 63 deaths in the 2006-2007 school year, the number of people killed in “school-associated” incidents dropped to 33 in 2009-2010 – the lowest in two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While a few dozen children tragically are murdered each year in school, statistically speaking it remains the safest place a child will likely ever be, with the lowest chance of being killed. “When you consider the fact that there are over 50 million schoolchildren in America, the chances are over 1 in 2 million, not a high probability,” states Northwestern Univerisity professor of criminology and law James Alan Fox. “And most cases that do occur are in high schools and less so in middle schools – and hardly ever in elementary schools.”

But right now the nation is understandably focused on school shootings and guns more generally. Whether this concern will result in lasting policy changes is unclear, as most analysts of “panic” driven social change say that a broad coalescence of factors usually is required. Not the least of these factors is legislative will, which current disagreements suggest will not coalesce in a meaningful way.

So what did the public wath and read in 2012? As the Pew Research Center reports, “The public’s news interests were very much focused on domestic developments this year, with the election outcome, last week’s horrific school shooting and Hurricane Sandy leading the list of the top stories of 201 September, which became a bitterly debated campaign issue, no foreign news story cracked the list of top stories.

“The presidential election was the year’s top story, according to Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index, which tracks interest in major stories in a weekly basis. In the days following Barack Obama’s reelection, 60% followed campaign news very closely.

“The Dec. 14 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown Conn. attracted nearly as much interest; 57% followed news about the tragedy very closely. Another large-scale shooting this year – this one at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater in July – also drew widespread interest, with nearly half (48%) following this event very closely.

“Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast in late October, drew very close interest from 53% of Americans. Though it struck in the final days of the campaign, interest in Sandy surpassed interest in the election that week. Both Sandy and the Newtown shootings attracted overwhelming interest in the Northeast; fully 73% of those in that region tracked Sandy very closely while 70% followed the Connecticut school shootings very closely.

While the election was the year’s top political story, there also was substantial interest in several policy-related stories. Fully 45% of Americans followed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the 201o health care law; the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations have consistently drawn interest from about four-in-ten Americans, while 37% paid very close attention to Obama’s announcement of support for same-sex marriage in May. The absence of foreign news from the top stories list, with the exception of the Libya consulate attack, marked a contrast with last year, when several international stories drew broad interest, including the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (the top story of 2011), the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring protests.

“Men and women paid roughly equal attention to most of the top stories of the year. However, higher percentages of women than men followed news about the large-scale shootings in Colorado and Connecticut very closeFully 63% of women tracked news about the Newtown shooting very closely – making this the top story of the year for women; 58% followed the election very closely. Among men, 62% followed the election very closely, while 50% followed news about the Connecticut shooting very closely.Women also were more likely than men to follow the shooting in a Colorado movie theater (by 14 points), the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin (11 points) and Obama’s expression of support for gay marriage (nine points).”

For more from Pew, see: http://www.people-press.org/2012/12/20/timeline-top-news-stories-of-2012/

 

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