Y! Big Story: How the media should cover mass shootings, and why it can’t

The ghastly theatricality of the July 20 shooting in an Aurora,
Colorado, movie theater guaranteed nonstop media attention, amplified by
social media.

What wasn’t guaranteed, yet inevitable, would be the dizzy scramble
to name the offender, count the bodies, release unconfirmed details,
speculate on madness — and then criticize the reactionary reporting.

Analysts from the Atlantic to Fox News have questioned the journalistic impartiality. The embarrassing gaffes over identifying the correct James Holmes alone proved how the swarm of reporting in a 24-7 environment trumped accuracy.

[Related: Yahoo’s complete coverage of the Colorado shooting]

The July 30 hearing, in which Holmes was charged with 142 counts of murder, was closed to the press. As news organizations prepare to argue at an August 9 hearing to have the judge unseal the case docket,
a deeper concern persists: Does sensationalist coverage encourage
copycats? In the sworn duty to provide the who, what, where, and when,
many journalists will be asking how — how much publicity should be
afforded to a suspected killer in a case that has already become one of
the year’s most closely followed stories. That leads to another corollary: Can media habits change until Americans challenge their own complicity?

The calculus of crime: infamy

The coverage debate — conducted in discussion boards, blogs, and media stories — have ranged from focusing exclusively on victims to advocating a blackout on the suspect’s name. Jordan Ghawi, who tweeted that his sister had died at the theater, returned to Twitter
to ask that people join the president to refrain from “speaking the
shooter’s name or posting images.” The impulse is to deny the alleged
suspect notoriety and discourage “the next would-be spree killer.”

There’s a history of criminals declaring to have been inspired by violent acts, from Adolf Hitler’s genocidal actions to the rampage shooting at Columbine High School.
Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at Poynter, points out to
Yahoo!, “There’s no hard science that suggests the way the media covers
an event leads to copycats.” The only contagion effect that has been
documented by studies is copycat suicide.
In such a case, the recommended media guidelines include avoiding a
vivid description of the act or attributing the act to a single failure,
such as a breakup or a college rejection. Those triggers “may
contribute to suicide,” McBride says, but the suicide happened because
the person was mentally ill, not because he or she failed a test.

Correlation of copycat murders may be harder to come by because such
killings — serial or spree — are mercifully rare, accounting for less than 1% of all murders.
But criminal behavioralists do see infamy as a motive for a certain
type of offender. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who studies mass
murderers, tells Yahoo! that some angry desperate offenders will review
a menu of crimes that achieve their goals. “One of the considerations
in that calculus [is], what will achieve the greatest publicity,” he
explains. A suicidal depressive would consider mass murder and
assassination; those who want to survive their crimes contemplate serial
murder, arson, product tampering, and bombings.

[Related: Mass murder and mental illness]

Crime assessment expert Richard Walters classifies killers who carry
out high-profile crimes among “power aggressives.” One of the founders
of the Vidocq Society, a nonprofit that solves cold cases and is the subject of the New York Times bestseller “The Murder Room,”
Walter explains to Yahoo! that the Colorado theater shooter’s style of
attack — the gas mask, the costume, the setting, the damage — was
about power control. Unlike anger-excitation or sadistic killers,
power-aggressive killers create a “drama bigger and better than what
they should have” to compensate for failings in their personal lives, he
says. “They kidnap other people’s power for their own.”

Duty versus sensationalism

The journalist’s duty to cover what’s happening without restriction
is paramount. In a frantic and competitive environment, though,
sensationalism can kick in, and these days, the accelerated speed of
reporting in the downsized profession can cloud big-picture thinking.

While some have called for a voluntary code of ethics geared to
covering mass tragedies (the Society of Professional Journalists has a general code),
there’s already a well-established understanding on what to do when
such news breaks. Al Tompkins, senior faculty of broadcast and online at
Poynter, posted sound tips
immediately after the Colorado theater shootings. While he thinks a
media blackout on a suspect is a bad idea, Tompkins agrees that
reporters should avoid “hyperventilating terms” that describe terrified
victims frozen with fear. Also, they should avoid the word “terror” in
a headline. “I would minimize my use of adjectives that give power to
the bad guys,” Tompkins says.

[Related: Colorado families ask media to stop using shooter’s name]

“Our job [as journalists] isn’t to prevent or punish or any of those
things. Our job is to report,” Tompkins tells Yahoo!. There must be
balance: Reporting the “nitty-gritty details” of how a tragedy unfolded
can come across as a tutorial, he says, but it also outlines an
evildoer’s mindset and highlights the dangers that first responders
face. For every example of overheated coverage, there is the opposite
coming from seasoned newsrooms in places like Denver, Minneapolis, and
Dallas, which exemplify aggressive yet respectful reporting.

The Poynter tips echoes advice that Dietz has long given to news
organizations in covering mass killings: Tone down emotion and report
the facts.

“I see no problem with factual information, so people who seek to
understand it can read about it,” Dietz says, but the “incomplete,
instantaneous, often incorrect scramble for biographic material does
more harm than good.” It’s also harmful to heighten an already highly
emotional incident. “There’s no need to add hysteria to the voice of the
announcer or commentator or other journalists,” he says. “There’s no
need to add sounds of commotion like sirens or wailings [in broadcast].
There’s no need to stick microphones in the face of victims and those
who have lost loved ones.”

Vengeance and distancing

To single out the media would be a knee-jerk reaction — as would
blaming a killer’s actions on a foreclosure notice, a college rejection
letter, a movie, the lack of security at a theater, lax gun-control
laws, or even mental illness. Journalists have an often thankless
obligation to look at the worst of what society does while still
upholding its core beliefs.

[Related: Expressing support for the victims through art]

Naming the offender, for instance, isn’t just part of a transparent
justice system; it stems from a desire for public vengeance, a holdover
from the days of public hangings and stadium executions. “This is a
country with a history of citizen vigilantism,” Dietz says. “This is no
more than speculation, but aggressive media coverage serves as a bit of
a substitute for the blood lust of the past.”

A media stereotype — reinforced in detective novels and sappy movies
— depicts the killer as a loner, an outsider, someone beyond
society’s margins. In truth, the FBI points out that spree and serial
killers “hide in plain sight
among ordinary families, living in the suburbs, working decent-paying
jobs, leading Boy Scouts, or attending church. The rush to demonize
makes for compelling storytelling, and it also creates a comforting
distance between the killer and society. Many Americans couldn’t fathom
Norway’s remarkably restrained response to extremist Anders Behring
Breivik, which included a criminologist’s declaration that the accused
mass murderer was “one of us.”


View photo



(CREDIT: Center for American Progress)

But why glorify a killer, beyond a deep-seated storytelling tradition
of mythical monsters fighting great gods? In some ways, not only does
an extraordinary villain allow us to create extraordinary heroes, but,
at some level, it also absolves us ordinary folks for missing a demon in
our midst.

Mutual responsibility

Yet these impulses can play into the villain-victim scenario, in
which murderers become “bigger in their britches than they really are,”
Walters says. Even when captured, they persist in their power play by
“creating a sense of mystery,” from spouting a manifesto to being
unresponsive. Excusing behavior with pop-psychology profiling about
mental illness or other so-called triggers diminishes the killer’s
responsibility. “Know who the victim is and who the victim is not,”
Walter says.

So how can media report on the facts without creating a celebrity out
of a killer or glorifying his actions? Some recommendations: Name him
but shame him. Don’t lead with a body count. Resist a soundtrack of
hysteria and chaos. Wait for facts. Uncover his background, but don’t
make excuses. Avoid letting interest groups hijack a crime to push a
political agenda, no matter how noble. Recognize the tragedy as a case
study for societal failure, but do not create a climate of blame.

Criminologists don’t hesitate to use terms like “loser,” “fraud,”
“pretender,” or “failure” in describing a mass murderer. While objective
reporting would likely stay away from such language, the press could
depict the behavior as contemptible rather than create a charismatic

The responsibility doesn’t just lie with journalists, especially in
this age of social media: Audiences have an obligation to keep things in
perspective and to protect themselves. Just as outlets shouldn’t
blanket coverage with images of the suspect and crime, consumers should
know when to look away. “What we see on the news is the aberration of
life,” Tompkins says. “It’s how you focus your lens.”