I saw the first story break about 13-year-old Keaton Jones online December 11. National mainstream media outlets and local stations scrambled faster than the rush for the latest President Trump tweet to paint the picture of a middle school student as a symbol of bullying.
As I watched the hoopla unfold on all the major networks, I told a couple of my students and a former colleague that the story had a life of about three to four days. My old friend agreed. The students asked why.
My response, paraphrasing, went something along these lines: “It’s another opportunity to chase what we used to call a ‘water cooler story.’ You have the perfect setup: a kid who has just become a teen in one of the most awkward ages of life, he says he’s being ganged up on by peers and he’s elected to tell his story via social media.” I went on to explain that television and online journalists are attracted to any story that “goes viral.” In today’s move-on-to-the-next story culture, and with schools about to adjourn for Christmas break, I had no faith that we would see serious, probing reporting on a critical issue that confronts children and teens daily.
However, I added that something did not feel right about this story. Had Keaton Jones taken a phone camera and posted what was on his heart as a bullying victim with no assistance, that would be one thing. In this case, his mother was offscreen acting in the role of a quasi-interviewer and, at times, asking what an attorney would call leading questions in a courtroom.
Yet, virtually every media outlet and online presence in America chased after this video. Regardless of what journalists say, they collectively made Keaton Jones an instant media star and just as quickly abandoned him. This was a class example of what Rick Neuheisel describes as “playing the hits,” the practice of cable sports networks zeroing in on stars almost to excess because focus group research indicates such standouts “move the needle.” Keaton definitely moved the needle.
On my Roku set, I skimmed newscasts from 11 different local stations during the three-day period after Keaton’s video went viral. Every single one prominently featured a story on his being bullied in either the first or second block of an early or late evening newscast. Only in two I viewed was a remote effort made to localize the story and probe further the extent of bullying in that station’s market and whether anti-bullying policies are genuinely being enforced.
Instead, as a whole, journalism was more concerned with the instant celebrity symbol of anti-bullying attached to Keaton Jones. Little consideration was given to the potential emotional aftermath for the teen or whether this entire confession online was his idea. I had one colleague suggest to me, “He and his mother put him in that position, so the consequences aren’t our responsibility.” Really?
Producers and editors became far more enthralled with Hollywood celebrities, college and pro athletes and even politicians from Tennessee offering emotional support and showering attention on Keaton. Even a GoFundMe.com account was established to create a college fund for the youngster.
Only in a matter of days were questions raised about the legitimacy of Keaton’s video, past online posts by his parents that suggested racism, and whether the mother was egging on the entire hoopla as an attempted money grab. Within five days, Keaton Jones was dropped as a central media figure. The GoFundMe effort was canned. Whatever serious focus journalism could have placed on the issue of bullying fizzled quicker than Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.
Four years ago, my university hosted a Saturday seminar for young teens. The focus was on an essay contest that provided the eventual winner a trip to Washington, D.C. A local attorney and city councilman sponsors the event. An entire session, including a documentary film, stressed the consequences of bullying for victims. The attorney and I had a private conversation after one of the sessions. We shared that both of us had been bullied in either junior high or high school.
I remember my own experience as horrendously as if it were yesterday. In an afternoon junior high physical education class, we were doing the 600-yard run-walk, one of six elements of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness challenge. I did not come from an athletic family. I never struggled in the classroom but I was a hopeless mess on a playing field. I usually finished in the final four or five in any running test in the class of 36 guys. On a particular afternoon, I reached the 400-yard mark—huffing as usual—when I was cornered by two in the class who had already finished. One was a noted bully. The other stunned me because I always had a reasonable relationship with him. He was a full head taller than I was. The bully-by-reputation was a half-head taller. The bigger guy grabbed me behind the back. The other one had his fist clenched. The one I thought was a friend said, “Look up.” Certainly that must have been one of the courageous acts of his life to hold someone six inches smaller for another boy to cold cock in the chin. Call it an act of God or whatever you wish but I did not obey his command to look up. As I braced myself to be smacked in the teeth, two things happened. Coach Joe Mercer, who was near the 600-yard finish line, miraculously spotted what was about to happen. He sped toward my attackers and said something to the effect, “What’s going on here?” At the same time, a white dog who was in a yard across the street from the junior high athletic field, came running to investigate (and I was privately hoping he would take a bite out of the bully).
Coach Mercer pursued his question. The two guys, who had all of the grace of pro wrestling villains, suggested, “We were just kidding around.” Oh yeah? They both knew they were lying. I was such an emotional wreck at the close call that I erupted in tears, a no-no in front of a peer group of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys. So what? I could not hold back. The coach, who was not born the day before, immediately accompanied me inside and asked me to go with him to the principal’s office. I was questioned about what happened. Naturally, the experience left me in a quandary. To unload the entire story would brand me as a tattletale, which was emotional suicide. To not speak would potentially allow the behavior to continue, either against me or someone else (the bully had popped a friend in the jaw in the locker room three weeks earlier).
What shocked me was the principal’s overall approach. I was quizzed thoroughly about anything I might have done to provoke the attack. At one point in frustration, I said to the principal, “Do you actually think I would be responsible for being ganged up on two-on-one?” He acknowledged such, but said, “We have to be thorough to get to the bottom of these things.” I have some emotional sympathy with recent victims of sexual assaults who feel they are put on trial when reporting their attacks. That is exactly what I felt in the principal’s office.
Rather than reassure me that the two guys who were ready to take a chunk out of my face would be disciplined (I never knew if they were), the principal left me even more confused. He presented me with a final thought that I needed to build myself physically so I could defend myself against a bully. As I later learned, that was the general consensus among fathers of athletes or accused bullies of the day: if a kid is bullied, it’s mostly his fault because he isn’t skilled enough to fight back.
Scarred for life? That probably is a stretch. However, I went through an entire summer looking over my shoulder every time I walked alone or rode my bicycle, concerned if I would encounter one or both of the bullies. Even as an older adult, I had periodic pockets where the memory of that May afternoon would flash through my mind. The pain never eased, nor did the disgust of the lack of decisiveness on the part of the principal.
I go into that kind of detail about my own experience because 50 years ago, this was not an issue journalism ever explored. Episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Leave It to Beaver” touched on bullying more than television news. Even then, bullying was depicted as a routine rite of passage of a young male’s life.
In 2002, I was in the class of Faculty Fellows from what was then called the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The group of 24 fellows were past TV news professionals who returned to newsrooms across the nation for a full month as an educational refresher for our students. We were all provided a DVD with a collection of first-class stories from markets across America that all posed ethical questions. That became a great teaching tool for me.
One of the best pieces of investigative journalism in the entire set was from a station in Baltimore. A reporter and videographer stationed themselves in a van with a hidden camera and captured multiple random and calculated acts of bullying on an elementary school playground. The physical attacks included kicks to the head of one helpless child. In several instances, teachers or playground monitors had their backs turned to the melees. None of them came to the aid of a child suffering from incessant brutality. When shown to a school district administrator, his first response was, “On the surface, this makes us look bad.”
Since that time, most states—including Tennessee where I teach broadcast journalism—have enacted anti-bullying laws for school districts or have directed school boards to develop specific anti-bullying policies. However, much of the action has now moved online. Despite Hawaii becoming one of the last states in the country to enact anti-bullying legislation, KGMB reported that cyberbullying affects one out of every two teens in the Hawaiian islands.
The National Crime Prevention Council reports similar totals nationwide:
- Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.
- Well over half of those who have been victims of cyberbullying do not tell their parents.
- Girls are “somewhat” more likely than boys to be involved in cyberbullying.
My key question: when was the last time television news departments seriously explored the issue of bullying with in-depth reporting? If you are one of those who is constantly under the gun to “generate content,” as is the popular contemporary term, I am handing you a freebie. Here are several pertinent questions I suggest should be explored by reporters in every city in America:
—-What are the specific anti-bullying policies for each school district?
—-What are the enforcement procedures for discipline? Who administers punishment and what are the specific penalties? What happens on first offense, second offense and beyond?
—-What kind of anti-bullying education programs are conducted within your local school district and at what age? If it occurs at the middle school level, what kind of followup education is offered at the high school level?
—–What type of mental health counseling or referrals are available for victims of any type of bullying? Going further, what kind of mental health counseling is directed for those who commit acts of bullying? Those who are serial bullies may well need therapy as much or more as the victims, because no well-adjusted human being engages in this kind of mental as well as physical intimidation to another.
—–At what point does law enforcement step in to intervene with those who commit repeated acts of bullying, or engage in cyberbullying?
—–What do local psychologists or psychology professors suggest are the reasons people become bullies? To what degree do we still have male parents who take a passive view of bullying by suggesting victims are at fault for not building themselves physically to defend themselves? What do psychologists say are potential answers from a mental health perspective?
—–How safe are smaller children on a crowded school playground during recess periods? How adequately are they supervised?
—–To what degree does emotional scarring carry over for bullying victims into adult life? How much long-term or short-term depression or anxiety results?
—–How can bullying extend into adult life in a workplace situation?
—–What are the numbers in each state for suicide attempts or actual suicides that occur from acts of bullying?
We have to move past this obsession in journalism that just because something or an individual “goes viral” online is a reason for everyone to chase that post or person with top-of-the-broadcast furor. When the subject is a juvenile, exceeding caution should be exhibited to thoroughly investigate the circumstances.
In the case of Keaton Jones, British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson offers some salient perspective. “The fact that the mother uploaded the video should have perhaps raised some flags,” she wrote two days after the Keaton Jones story broke. “But more so, reporting that she had made racist comments on an Instagram account, which has since been proved fake, should have been checked. It was also reported that Keaton made an apology on behalf of his mother – except that Instagram account was fake too.”
This should serve as an instructional lesson in the fallacies of rushing to publish social media events. Keaton Jones was made a poster boy for anti-bullying in one day. Four days later, he was dropped faster than Brad Keselowski drives around Daytona International Speedway. Media all over the nation and the world share in the responsibility, as badly as we hate to admit mistakes.
In the process, we missed a huge opportunity to explore one of the most emotionally-threatening issues for children and adolescents in the entire nation. Bullying exists in every single city, large and small, in America. Reporters need to be asking serious questions in their local communities about how to combat bullies without finding a social media star to serve as the catalyst.