How to cover school attacks: Experts discuss best practices and impact of coverage on violence in Brazil

The attack of a 13-year-old student at a school in the city of São Paulo on March 27, which left a teacher dead and four other people injured, revived public debate in Brazil about the impact of news coverage on this type of violence. The Association of Education Journalists (Jeduca) held a webinar on March 31 to debate the issue with experts and guide journalists on how to do an ethical and responsible job and avoid the “contagion effect.”

The conversation was moderated by Marta Avancini, public editor of Jeduca and editor of the association's website. "We wanted to bring two experts who work with the issue of violence at school to bring assistance, information, and to debate and reflect so we can advance a bit in our understanding not only of the phenomenon of these violent attacks, but especially to think a bit about the role of the press, since it is our mission here in Jeduca to collaborate to improve education coverage," she said.

Telma Vinha, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), presented the conclusions of a research on planned attacks on schools in Brazil that was conducted by the Ethics, Diversity and Democracy in Public School Study Group of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Unicamp (IdEA), which she coordinates. In the last 20 years, the group registered 22 attacks, all perpetrated by students or former students, mostly in public schools (18 cases). Nine attacks occurred in the last eight months alone, which shows a "very significant" increase in this type of violence in Brazil, she said.

She presented a general profile of the perpetrators of these attacks — young, white males, with a taste for gun violence, among other characteristics. Vinha pointed out that they are "users of an extremist subculture" that is currently found "on the surface of the internet," that is, on open social media such as Twitter and TikTok.

"They link up with these morbid communities, online forums that encourage violence, misogyny, that a few years ago were difficult to access, because it was through the deep web. Nowadays, this is on the surface of the internet, like Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, Twitter. So these profiles and these communities are easily found. (...) And you still get suggestions from artificial intelligence [of the social media platform] to follow similar pages," the researcher said.

screenshot of a webinar with 3 white women and 1 black woman

The panelists during the webinar promoted by Jeduca. (Screenshot)


Vinha pointed out that these perpetrators announce attacks in advance and "want to be seen, they seek notoriety.” She presented a printout of a tweet, published in January of this year, which was an alleged announcement of an attack against a school and that, according to her, remained posted for more than a month. "No matter how much you report it, the platforms often don't take [the post down] and there is no investigation," she said.

One of the factors that has been contributing to the increased frequency of this type of attack in recent months is "stochastic terrorism," which according to Vinha consists of "manipulating discourse to elicit fear and terror." "It's a social discourse that authorizes the treatment of conflict by violence, not by words. So it's as if they give you an authorization to act in a violent way," she said.

Suggestions for journalists

Catarina de Almeida Santos, a professor at the School of Education at the University of Brasilia (UnB), presented conclusions of studies on the impact of news coverage of attacks on schools and suggestions for journalists. She is one of the authors of the report "Ultra-conservatism and right-wing extremism among adolescents and young people in Brazil: Attacks on educational institutions and alternatives for government action." It was prepared for the transition team of the current Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration and it also makes some observations about the role of the media in the spread of this type of violence.

According to her, studies conducted in the United States have concluded that press coverage can influence the proliferation of this type of attack, in the so-called "contagion effect."

"The young people who carry out these attacks are usually not close to each other, they don't know each other. When we think of a 'wave,' that one attack can provoke new attacks, it is because they observe what others have done. And that's where the issue of coverage by the many news outlets that we have today comes in. We are not only talking about mainstream media, but also social media. The information that serves as a model [for new attacks] comes from the media," Santos said.

According to the professor, the way in which the press covers these attacks, with repeated exposure of the images, presentation of the perpetrator's life story, or publication of details of the event, can lead other young people to carry out other attacks. "This exposure increases the social status, the notoriety of the perpetrator," she said. While speculation about a possible motive for the attack, such as "revenge after years of bullying," may also inspire other young people in this situation to commit a violent act.

In fact, the day after the attack on the school in São Paulo that left one person dead and four injured, attempted attacks were recorded at a school in Rio de Janeiro and at a school in Santo André, in the state of São Paulo.

"If the way the media covers these stories can promote new attacks, [then] it’s necessary to change methods of exposure and reporting" on these events, Santos said. According to her, research indicates that coverage of school attacks could follow the model of the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for suicide coverage, such as avoiding sensationalism and avoiding publishing details about the cases, among other recommendations.

It is important to limit the time given to coverage, since media attention is perceived as a "reward" for the perpetrator's actions, and not to make live posts about the event, as this "increases the level of excitement" around the event, Santos said.

"Instead of doing that, [it’s better to] bring the information through written updates, for example, because this can not only minimize the perceived reward for those who provoked the attack and for those who want to provoke new attacks, but it will decrease general interest about the event, which could even restrict this need to imitate or provoke new attacks," she said.

The two researchers also highlighted the importance of regulating social media and other online platforms to curb the circulation of hate speech and messages that encourage violence.

They also stated that it is important to avoid exposure of the school community, which often happens in these cases when press coverage turns to the school, the teachers, and the students who were victims of the attack. For Santos, the exposure of the school ends up blaming the institution, and the people who are part of it, for the violence.

"When we report on schools, regardless of the theme, we are talking about the future of society (...) A school is the space to learn about the experience of democracy, about living as a community, and has the role of transforming individual values of that community into socially desirable values. And this task is not easy, it is difficult," Vinha said.

Press coverage guides the debate, helps steer the discussion and presses for solutions, she said. That is why it is important for journalists to devote themselves to covering public policies presented to deal with this problem. The press also has the role of questioning proposals to militarize the school environment, such as the implementation of panic buttons and increased surveillance with the presence of police officers inside the school, for example.

"Why only security issues [in feature stories], without considering the specificity of the place of the attacks, which were the schools? In what way will security, for example, change a feeling of hatred, of racism, of prejudice [among students]?" Vinha said.

"We can't accept a school culture of surveillance. The school culture has to be one of care, of protection. (...) Questioning by the press is fundamental, because it is what leads government offices to look for alternatives [to militarization]," she said.