Shocking, I know, but please bear with me. Indeed our highly regarded media propagates more mass shootings and, honestly, it should be easy to see why. However, if you thought guns were the sole problem, allow me to elaborate on why gun violence and media coverage go hand in hand.
Parkland happened and, shortly after, Santa Fe happened. And, quite honestly, at the rate things are going, we will have a third mass shooting very soon. Probably at another high school.
Why? Because of how we, the media, treat the gunmen.
Let’s back up a little bit. I graduated in 2012 with a Masters of Print and Multimedia Journalism from Emerson College. Before graduating, I had to write a thesis and I chose to tackle the highly volatile subject about America’s mass shooting problem.
I wanted to know why mass shootings were such a problem. I also felt that the blame needed to shift from guns, violent video games, and mental health to all culpable parties.
And, while writing my thesis, the incident in Aurora, Colorado happened. But, by then, I was well on my way of discovering that our media works as a catalyst for future gun violence.
Simply put: the way our media covers mass shootings, by putting emphasis on the shooter, creates copycats who want the same fame and glory.
Sure, my professor, a staunch liberal who believed a perfect world consisted of no guns whatsoever, hated my paper. He completely rejected the notion that his very profession could possibly play a role in America’s growing gun violence.
He also hated that I ended my paper with an eerie prediction that another mass shooting, much worse than Colorado’s, will transpire within six months.
In December, Sandy Hook happened. And I, too, hated that I was right.
So how was I able to accurately predict that a mass shooting, greater than the devastation in Aurora, would happen? It all comes down to how our media treats mass shootings.
In short: they celebrate them. Mass shootings become 24 hour news as our journalists work to pick apart the life of the gunman and find out “what went wrong.”
And that, unfortunately, is what begets the next shooter.
Think about it like this. A man, so unhappy and frustrated with life, makes plans to take as many lives as possible because he’s so twisted. Simply put: he wants people to know who he is and how angry he was.
So, he carries out the deed and, boom, our media circulates his name and image far and wide. In short: giving him what he wanted.
Our media dedicates themselves to picking apart the shooter’s life and even go as far as interviewing family members as they reel from the shock. You hear, “He was a good boy.” “He was a sensitive boy.” Or, a popular line, “He was bullied/misunderstood.”
So, imagine a person who is equally as frustrated with life sees this on their screen and begins to identify with the shooter. While the majority of Americans slowly grow numb to the coverage and start to see it as rubbernecking, some see it as inspirational.
“I want to be treated like that. I want everyone to know my name.”
Some people crave the glory and attention our media, without an ounce of restraint, gives to a violent gunman. In their warped mind, they see it as an easy way to become the next household name.
In a way, they may interpret the constant saturation of coverage as a sign of respect. The media gave the mass shooter a podium and airs their grievances to the captive audience. In short, they feel that’s a form of respect that they honestly feel they deserve. But, obviously, they don’t have because they think no one will give it to them otherwise.
Therefore, we find ourselves deluged with a series of copycats.
For example: following the events in Aurora, two more mass shootings transpired almost immediately after. We all recall the travesty at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Then, after that, another gunman opened fire and killed two at A&M University in Texas.
However, with each subsequent shooting, the coverage died down a lot quicker and lost priority to other national headlines. Maybe the body count wasn’t high enough or maybe the news felt too overwhelmed by so many mass shootings happening at once.
Then, the cycle suddenly stopped once coverage quieted. In the months following Aurora, mass shootings became a relic of the past.
Until Sandy Hook and the litany of coverage started up again as journalists tried to comprehend “what went wrong” to make a man want to gun down innocent children.
While some may find this type of coverage fascinating, it does far more harm than good, as I wrote in 2012:
“In doing so, the media focused on statements and drew conclusions from statements supplied by family members and friends instead of certified psychiatrists, which inadvertently humanized the shooter and possibly evoked the news consumer’s sympathy.”
My thesis argued that our media needed to change its code of ethics when covering mass shootings.
For example, I advocated that instead of shining a light on the shooter’s dark past, the media directs its sympathies to the victims. In short, our media denies the lime light from the shooter and gives it to his or her victims.
In short, our media refuses to reward the shooter. They become a faceless assailant while the victims become real people with colorful lives that were cut short.
Sure, a gunman may want to wreck havoc and take as many lives because they’re unstable. They simply want to kill people. But, in the end, they get the added bonus of fame and glory in the form of nonstop coverage.
And, as demonstrated, some do it for the attention. In 2015, a disgruntled man gunned down two reporters on live TV. Later, during the police investigation, police uncovered proof that the suspect identified with other mass shooters, such as the boys from Columbine.
In short, he wanted to be them. And, as later discovered, he wanted the same attention they received from the media, too.
And our reporters willingly handed it over. But, they also divided the coverage equally with to the two deceased journalists: Alison Parker and Adam Ward. The media publicly mourned for the loss of their own to the point that the journalists gained more recognition than the man who killed them.
Call it a coincidence, but since then, no one’s gunned down reporters live on air.
Was it because of the way our media handled the shooting? Could be. While our media did act as a free publicity service for the shooter, the media also quieted down once police discovered what drove him to take those lives.
So, why does the media act as a conduit for more gun violence? Well, mass shootings started becoming a real problem as news began emerging as a 24-hour service. This also started heating up around the time more people started buying computers and started connecting to the Internet.
The first “contemporary” mass shooting happened in January 17, 1989. As in, the first mass shooting to receive lavish coverage from the media. A man executed 5 children and wounded countless others on a school playground with a 9mm handgun before taking his own life.
The coverage started out on the local level, but soon became a national headline in the weeks to come.
On September 14, 1989, a man stormed a printing plant using a similar handgun used in the January shooting. He killed 8 people before turning the gun on himself.
In the police report detailing the account, officers found an old article in the gunman’s house about the January shooting. Police also noticed the gunman developed an interest for guns around the time the article came out.
This is quite possibly the first instance of a copycat mass murderer. Why do people write it down as such? Well, experts theorize that maybe this event wouldn’t have happened had this man read the article.
This new gunman, who was obviously suicidal and depressed in his records, probably wanted the same fame and attention. In short, maybe he felt this was the only way to give his life meaning.
Now, let’s jump to 2007 using the instance of the Virginia Tech mass shooting. Before carrying out his heinous crime, the shooter recorded a personal video, wrote a personal account, and took pictures of himself posing with different firearms before sending the material to NBC.
The network aired the footage despite numerous cries of opposition. Mostly, other journalists wondered what value that manifesto possibly held and why was it necessary to air it. What could people possibly learn from it and why WOULD they want to learn more about the shooter?
But this became the first case where 24-hour networks turned the gunman into an antihero. We knew his name, his story, and all about his broken heart.
“Several confirmed copycat incidents arose following the release of [the gunman’s] manifesto, including a frustrated 16-year-old boy that threatened via email to reenact the tragedy at his own school. It brings into question whether or not [the gunman’s] privileged stance with the media inspired the copycat incidents.”
Now here we are, over 10 years later, and students are still turning a gun at their peers. And, just as the sun rises and sets, our media fixates on the stories these gunmen tell.
And, you should ask yourself, what good does this kind of coverage do? What do you, specifically, learn from it that makes you a smarter and more-informed person? In short: how does it benefit your life and understanding?
Other than to rile emotions, I fail to see why we need to constantly parade these gunmen around like pinup boys. Sure, it’s human to express curiosity over what happened, but that willingness to learn ends when our media begins excavating the shooter’s tragic backstory.
So, why does our media work so hard to humanize these shooters?
For example, let’s look at most recent shooting at Santa Fe High and how we all know the gunman had his heart broken by a girl. Why is our media calling him a “lovesick teen” or a “sweet, quiet boy” but fail to mention this kid raised more red flags than Soviet Russia? Later “feminist” articles latched onto how this individual hounded his victim for 6 months before she had to humiliate him in front of an entire classroom because he refused to take “no” as an answer.
So, why does our mainstream media try to justify the shooting? Instead of pinning the blame on the shooter him/herself, they try to find what “inspired” the violent act. And, in doing so, it takes away some of the shooter’s culpability and places it in another person or incident.
That is, inherently, wrong. The only person deserving of blame is the one who pulled the trigger. Repeatedly.
We know the names of the shooters of Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Las Vegas and not any names of the victims. This is why I refused to name any shooters because you knew exactly who I was talking about.
So, why don’t we also think of any names of those who died in a specific mass shooting?
More importantly, when does this flow of information stop being informative and starts inspiring adverse effects?
Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist warned the media about the way they cover mass shootings:
“Every time we have intense saturation of coverage of a mass murder we expect to see one or two more within a week.”
Yes, it is the media’s responsibility to cover a mass murder. That’s because the alternative of not covering them is akin to censorship.
But, this is where Dietz suggests how the media can potentially disengage a copycat. He suggests that journalists should localize the story to the affected community and make it “as boring as possible.”
Meaning, no 24-hour intense saturation and questing to find out every last detail about the shooter. It’s unnecessary.
When the media does that, journalists call it “rubbernecking.” Rubbernecking is”when the media can no longer contribute to the understanding of the reader or provide material to shape his or her awareness and/or decision making process. ”
Sound familiar? Yes, I’m sure your Twitter blacklist agrees.
But, if the media shifts the attention away from the shooter and onto the victims, it tells the potential copycat that they will make other people famous. They won’t attain any fame, glory, attention, and swaths of fans. In short, it makes it less appealing.
The media needs to start making the victims and their families the star of the narrative.
Our reporters should start denying these potential shooters the extensive coverage they crave, and, by extension, denying them the respect they think they deserve.
In short: the media needs to stop letting people “shoot their way into fame.”
I believe it is the media’s responsibility to look at how they cover mass shootings and how they potentially inspire copycats. They should also ask themselves, “Are we giving the shooter what he/she wants?”
Or, even better, “Is this information useful to anyone? Or is it just rubbernecking?”
Will it happen? Probably not.
Unfortunately, our mass media struggles with low subscriptions and will do anything for clicks. They want viral content that people will talk about for days on end.
It’s much easier to call the Santa Fe shooter a creep than talk about the teachers he killed, right? Yeah, totally.
I feel like our media promotes the shooter so their listeners can comfort themselves in knowing there are worse people in the world. Or, that the subscriber is a good person BECAUSE he/she won’t shoot up a mall or school.
Yeah, setting the bar pretty low there.
Anyways, this is simply my 2 cents as to why our mass shooting problem continues to grow worse every year. Our media is enabling this epidemic.
Fact: Americans are more depressed and anxious than they were 10 years ago. Actually, Americans are the most stressed they’ve ever been in the entirety of the nation’s history.
Fact: White men now are making less than than salaries from 20 years ago. Which means their frustration and feeling of hopelessness is at a new high, too.
Fact: Toxic masculinity denies these men from coping with their stress/depression/anxiety in healthy ways. So, they turn to violence because it’s “socially acceptable.” A man can’t cry, but punching things and pacing around is totally okay!
So, combine all these factors, you have a larger number of people who might resort to violence to comfort themselves.
Not only that, kids today are becoming increasingly violent. Is it due to their parents or is it because teens are also more depressed and frustrated than decade ago? I don’t know, but it seems mass shooters keep getting younger and younger.
With that, now imagine the media extending a hand to these frustrated individuals and promising to give them the respect they deserve. All they have to do is pull the trigger…
It’s a vicious cycle and, if the media steps up, we’ll at least be able to slow the process down. If a change in coverage saves even one life, it’ll all be worth it.
That said, here’s a related video in case you saw this wall of text and went “nah, hard pass.”