Bullying Paper Presented at Conference (ABIBS Research Update)

Today I presented my semiotic content analysis of news articles on bullying for my Media Anthropology class last fall, at the 9th Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Environment, Space, and Place, conveniently right here at the University of Florida. The paper is pending acceptance to was declined for the journal Shift, but I received this comment: “Everybody on the Editorial Committee felt that your paper was timely and well-written. The reason why we have decided not to publish, then, has less to do with the merit of the paper and more to do with the issue of applicability; the scope of the journal cannot accommodate this specific topic.” A sampling of the paper:

In my analysis, 42.6 percent of the articles established the frequency of bullying on a national and/or regional basis. Of these articles, 37.5 percent contained a semantic element associated with the vilification of bullies, compared to 40 percent of all articles. Furthermore, a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health expert was quoted in 33 percent of all articles that discussed bullies as “cruel,” “mean,” violent, or abnormal, although such statements were not always attributed to the experts. The rate of coincidence of these two elements establishes bullying as both normative in occurrence but deviant in definition. For example, Jonathan Turley (2008), in a feature for ABC News, writes, “Being a bully remains a popular choice for students, particularly in middle schools, where bullying often peaks. A 2004 survey by KidsHealth found that 40% of children from 9- to 13-years-old admitted to bullying.” […] After discussing a few incidents of bullying, Turley concludes, “Bullies are not adverse object lessons for an educational system; they are the very antithesis of education” (ibid.). He makes specific rhetorical choices (rhetoric being the deliberate application of lexical symbols within a specific sociolinguistic context) such as referring to “our schools” (implicating the reader as part of the public) and describing bullies as being “in pursuit of their prey” (a word in a cultural index describing animal relationships).

Of all articles, 41.3 percent contained a semantic element that established blame, ignorance, or disregard for school administrators and teachers. Stories about suicides and/or lawsuits comprised 54.8 percent of these articles, usually because administrators and teachers were named as defendants in the lawsuits, or blamed by the parents in quotes about the victim’s troubles at school. Newswriters’ preference for the personal perspective on an event, especially that of family and friends in the case of a death, explains much of this concurrence. Forty-five percent of the articles expressing a negative view of school faculty and staff also established the frequency of bullying, heightening the former by invoking the reader’s expectations of the modern school in contrast to prevailing assumptions about the truth of statistics. For example, Susan Donaldson James (2009), in an article for ABC News on the Mohats’ lawsuit against Mentor High School in Ohio, cites the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center’s finding that 30 percent of American children are bullied or a bully. She notes, “The family said school officials had been resistant to cooperate in the investigation and had insisted bullying was not a problem; the bullies never showed remorse,” and “[they] took the attitude that ‘they are just being kids, boys are just being boys.’” A quote from a representative of the school district reads, “We don’t believe it’s a problem. . . .We have [the Olweus] program of anti-bullying education to raise awareness for students about what constitutes bullying and differences among students.” According to James, the Mohats complain that Olweus is not effective for high school students, and James corroborates the grieving parents, noting that “[a] 2007 review of the Olweus program in the Journal of Adolescent Health concludes that it ‘had some mixed positive effects varying by gender, ethnicity/race and grade but no overall effect.’”

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