Focus on lives lost, not the killer, say critics on mass shooting news coverage
As the U.S. struggles with each deadly mass shooting, the relentless news coverage follows a grim pattern: dispatch reporters to the scene, interview eyewitnesses and talk to the families and friends of the victims and killers.
But critics say the intense coverage of such tragedies may be contributing to more shootings, and it's time to examine how the media collectively covers mass shootings.
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'How our coverage might be contributing to this notoriety'
"I don't think that we necessarily know why someone did something like this just because we know some details about, you know, their gambling losses," said University of Missouri School of Journalism's Katherine Reed, looking at the 24/7 news coverage of a shooter's motive.
"I think it makes sense for the news media to look at how our coverage might be contributing to this notoriety that we're giving these people — that, you know, they become larger than life."
Media presentation of mass shootings is in fact contagious.- Jennifer Johnston
Critics have pointed out that killing could bring the perpetrators the fame they crave with media coverage.
Jennifer Johnston, assistant psychology professor at Western New Mexico University, who has studied mass shooters and their backgrounds, pointed to three shared traits: social isolation, depression and narcissism.
"So if there is a relationship between media coverage and focusing on the shooter and sending a would-be shooter over the edge … it needs just a collective agreement about what will be reported," Johnston told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
She pointed to the mathematical "contagion" model in her research where it found that "media presentation of mass shootings is in fact contagious."
"Another study out of the University of Vermont found that social media about mass shootings is also contagious," said Johnston.
I believe that we would see a one-third decrease in mass shootings if the media agreed to adopt the 'Don't name them, don't show them' type of campaign.- Jennifer Johnston
Gun laws in the United States haven't changed much in the last 15 years, and homicide in the U.S. is overall down, according to Johnston.
"However, mass shootings have a three-fold increase since the year 2000. And the thing that has changed in that time is media coverage … Based on the fact that that's the main factor that has changed, I believe that we would see a one-third decrease in mass shootings if the media agreed to adopt the 'Don't name them, don't show them' type of campaign."
Focus on the victim
Jennifer Brett, a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who covered many mass shootings, said it's a valid point to keep the focus on the victim.
"It's your job as journalists to get as much information as possible and to be as thorough as you can. But, yes, I do understand and very much agree with the call to be responsible."
I think that we have to memorialize the victims.- Katherine Reed
Reed looked at the deadline crunch faced by reporters and the search for perpetrator "profile."
"I think that's a little bit above our pay grade. You know it's not a thing that we should be doing in the immediate breaking news cycle."
The deluge of media coverage isn't just potentially creating the next mass killer, but it's also incredibly hard on survivors of previous mass shootings, according to Reed.
Reed called for newsrooms to show restraint, saying it's sufficient to name the shooters and run their photograph as "infrequently" as possible.
"I think that we have to memorialize the victims. I think we need to try very hard to make sure that we are spending far more time focusing on what was lost — the lives that were lost in these incidents — and also focusing on gun laws in the United States."
Listen to the full conversation above.
This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Ines Colabrese and Julian Uzielli.