CBS News With Katie Couric hypes a nontrend: teens and bombs.

Media criticism.
Dec. 11 2008 5:34 PM

Bogus Trend of the Week: Teens and Bombs

CBS News With Katie Couric hypes a nontrend.

Teenagers and bombs go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

When I was a kid, my brother Jon and I would collect the empty aerosol cans from the trash and toss them into the 55-gallon drum that functioned as the family incinerator. We'd wait until the parental units went shopping or golfing and then cover the Right Guard and Aqua Net containers with a pile of combustible trash and put a match to the whole thing.

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Sometimes we were rewarded with the rocket's red glare as the burning cans would spiral toward the heavens. On other occasions, the cans would blast flame posies of burning newspaper in the air that would float to the ground and start tiny brush fires. Disappointment arrived when the cans merely made whooshing sounds without exploding at all.

Such is the bond between teens—especially of the male variety—and the story about the teenager blowing off a hand in his basement bomb factory has become a staple of American newspapers. Blind to this long love affair is the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, which on Dec. 9 aired a ridiculous piece it titled "Made in the U.S.A.: Teen Bombers" on its Web site.

In her very scary intro, Couric reports that:

A government report out tonight may surprise you. It says there were more than 2,700 incidents involving bombs and explosive devices last year, right here in the United States. What's truly shocking is who was behind most of them.

The shocking, shocking, shocking news according to CBS reporter Armen Keteyian is that:

The latest figures, gathered by the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] and obtained exclusively by CBS News reveal that between 2004 and 2007 juveniles accounted for well more than half of all reported traceable explosive incidents—far exceeding gangs and hate groups combined.

When you follow the CBSNews.com link to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' U.S. Bomb Data Center Web site and look at the statistics, you discover that explosives incidents are demonstrably down in recent years. The CBS News broadcast (and the transcript offered on its Web adjunct) doesn't mention this fact. In 2004, the ATF recorded 3,790 explosives incidents. In 2005, the bureau noted 3,722 incidents. In 2006, it collected data on 3,445. (See this ATF PDF.)

(What exactly is an "explosives incident"? Glad you asked. According to the Bomb Data Center, incidents include bombings, attempted bombings, attempted incendiary bombings, premature explosion, stolen explosives, recovered explosives, hoax devices, and accidental explosions. In 2007, 2,061 of the 2,772 explosives incidents were recovered explosives.)

A graphic that appears at about the 44-second mark in the CBS News segment posted to the Web states by year the percentage of cases in which juveniles were involved: In 2004, 57 percent; in 2005, 63 percent; in 2006, 76 percent; in 2007, 59 percent.

That the number of explosives incidents fell to just 2,772 in 2007 (PDF) should have suggested to CBS News a segment titled "Hey, Where the Hell Have All the Explosives Incidents Gone?"

Instead, CBS News hangs its story on the hook that teens "accounted for well more than half" of all explosives incidents between 2004 and 2007. If it's true that teens are behind more than half of all incidents—and, given my past, I don't doubt it for a moment—shouldn't the network have done the arithmetic to produce the raw number of incidents involving juveniles?

Had the network gone that route, here's what it could have reported, year by year:

  • Year 2004: 2,160 incidents
  • Year 2005: 2,345 incidents
  • Year 2006: 2,618 incidents
  • Year 2007: 1,635 incidents

What to make of CBS's assertion that it's an "alarming trend" that more than half of all incidents involve kids "under the age of 18," even though the raw number—that was once fairly steady—has plummeted? That the network is desperate to inflate a nontrend into a real one.

Jon and I never graduated from aerosol cans to pipe bombs. He discovered the greater incendiary potential contained in girls, and I discovered firearms.

******

Later we both discovered alcohol. Send your bomb memories to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word bombs in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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