A station finally did something about the kid who wouldn't pick on somebody his own size. Fox-owned WITI Milwaukee targeted schoolyard bullies on its newscasts. The stories inspired an ongoing campaign.
WITI is working to better understand why bullies do what they do and how to make them stop doing it.
This daunting undertaking, The Bully Project, is actually an accidental step-by-step campaign, born out of an overwhelming community response to a November-sweeps investigative report. Fox O&Os around the country offer a variety of public-service initiatives, but few of them have grown out of an enormous (and unexpected) public response.
Reporter Bob Segall's sweeps piece "Roughed Up at Recess" was an undercover look at schoolyard bullies. "We were flooded with calls by people who had been bullied as children or who were now parents dealing with this," says General Manager Chuck Steinmetz. "There was this tremendous passion."
Soon, the station was hearing from people who hadn't even seen the report, from people who wanted to come in and talk about it, so WITI reran the report as part of a half-hour special, bringing psychologists and counselors to field calls from a phone bank.
"The phone lines lit up late into the evening," Steinmetz said. "We had definitely hit a nerve. This was feedback as we'd never seen before. That sparked us to take the next step."
Working with the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, the station constructed a survey that it sent out to 63 regional middle and high schools; of the 15,000 surveys sent out, an astonishing 13,000 responded.
The study revealed, among other things, that more than half the students who witness bullying or violence either "watch to see what happens" or do "nothing" and that barely more than one-third would either tell or ask the bully to stop or go to an authority figure. Nearly two-thirds of the victims didn't tell a school authority figure, and 43% did not even tell their parents. Teachers surveyed said they thought most bullies got caught; bullies usually thought they got away with it.
WITI went back on the air in May with another night of phone-ins to psychologists and counselors.
And this fall, The Bully Project will host community forums inviting the participating schools and others to work with WITI and its partner, a local nonprofit called Project Ujima, to better understand how to combat it.
"It's ambitious," Steinmetz says. "Typically in journalism, you expose the problems and move on, but we felt, given the response, we needed to try and solve the problem. We felt we needed to go to the next level."
Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.
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