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Making Sense of Bullying Reports

Nov 10, 2013

Credit stopbullying.gov

There was no shortage of stories reporting on the arrests of a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old girl in Polk County in connection with the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick.

But Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project" has cautioned reporters about reporting a direct link between bullying and a suicide.

"What worries me is that a lot of these stories about bullying lead the public to the wrong conclusions," McBride explained. "People could easily assume that bullying is on the rise and that teen suicides are on the rise. Both of those are not true. Teen suicides are relatively stable and bullying -- researchers will tell you -- is actually, if anything, on the decline because of the intervention of adults."

Oversimplification and sensationalism are the big dangers for reporters working on bullying stories, according to McBride.

"Bullying stories are the new shark bite stories and by the I mean that when journalists cover them they cover them because whatever happened is fairly rare -- the outcome -- usually it's a suicide," explained McBride.  "Yet, the way that we cover them leads to this gross distortion within the public in terms of understanding the phenomenon. So researchers will tell you that bullying does not directly lead to suicide, that suicide is a very complicated phenomenon and when journalists reduce it to a simplistic A causes B they do a disservice."

Is McBride saying that bullies should not be punished for their contribution to the pain and suffering of suicide victims?

"I am all for holding children accountable for their actions," McBride said. "But as we create policies and procedures for doing that we really need to understand the phenomenon."

McBride has a passion for this subject because she helped facilitate the committee that came up with media guidelines for covering bullying for the website stopbullying.gov.

McBride advised reporters that "it is inaccurate to say that bullying leads to suicide and you want to describe the mental health conditions that contribute to suicide. You want to provide more resources with the story."