Why the coverage of mass shootings continues to miss the mark and how to fix it

Why the coverage of mass shootings continues to miss the mark and how to fix it
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It seems like every week, somewhere in America, there is word of another mass shooting. All are covered by their local media; many are picked up by the national press. Few, like the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, generate a seemingly endless stream of coverage that lasts for days, weeks, or even months. Despite the variation in coverage these events receive, they all share one key feature: the overwhelming focus on the perpetrators.

As soon as the name of the perpetrator becomes available, it is looped into the coverage and becomes the focus. Images from shooters’ social media profiles are prominent on television, digital news, and newspapers. The details of their lives are typically a central feature of news reportage. The lives taken, the people injured, and the communities traumatized, however, are secondary to the killers.

In prioritizing coverage of the shooters, the media have provided a reward to them for killing people. Don’t take our word for it. One needs not look any further than the video made by the Parkland shooter – whose name we won’t say – just before he went to the school and killed 17 people. Or three months later to Santa Fe High School (Texas), where the shooter told police he specifically spared students he liked so they would tell the media his story.

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Such a focus on the shooters signals to other like-minded individuals who are considering planning a similar attack that if they kill people in a public setting, they too will likely be a focus of media coverage. This “copycat effect” has been in place since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. Some shooters today, who weren’t even born when Columbine happened, reference the two killers as sources of inspiration. Researchers also have found that copycat incidents are more common within the first two weeks of coverage, when the news coverage also is the highest.

As our colleague Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama has noted, the coverage of mass shooting events is essentially free publicity for the perpetrators – at a value of millions of dollars at that. In just two weeks after Parkland, an estimated 7,900 stories about the shooting ran online. The number would be even greater when factoring in television and newspaper stories. The result? Threats and incidents of school violence increased 300 percent in the 30 days following the shooting, and the perpetrator became a household name – and even a symbol of adoration for some teenage girls. The consequences of the continued reporting focus on the perpetrators are clear, as is the media’s complicity in continuing to perpetuate this misguided spotlight. A more responsible form of reporting would continue to share the necessary (and verified) facts of the case without continuing to emphasize the shooters.

One of the most promising approaches to achieving this end is known as the No Notoriety campaign, established by Tom and Caren Teves after their son Alex was murdered in the 2012 Aurora, CO movie theater shooting. The No Notoriety campaign asks the media to limit (not completely eliminate) the use of perpetrators’ names and images, instead to focus coverage on the victims, heroes, and community impacted by the event. They recommend inclusion of relevant information from established experts, and avoidance of publication of materials like manifestos, videos, or web sites left behind by the perpetrators.

A similar protocol already is in use related to the reporting of suicide, which has been found to be a similarly contagious phenomenon. Following the recommendations of the World Health Organization, news organizations changed how they reported suicides, including (but not limited to) avoiding sensationalized headlines, prominent placement of the deceased, and descriptions of the methods by which the suicides were carried out. When these guidelines are not followed, which often is the case with celebrity suicides, the impact can be deadly. Following the death of comedian Robin Williams in 2014 and the ensuing media coverage, suicides in the U.S. increased nearly 10 percent in just four months.

The question remains then that if the media will voluntarily follow these guidelines for suicides, why would they not also do so for mass homicides? It is clear that journalists should deny mass shooters the fame they seek. As members of our communities who also are deeply affected by mass violence, journalists are needed to help in reducing the copycat/contagion effect by adopting the standards of No Notoriety in their coverage. The time for this shift is now. Lives literally are depending on it.

Jaclyn Schildkraut is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego. Glenn W. Muschert is Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Miami University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming (January 2019) book “Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond: Lessons from Tragedy.”