Dear Media, Please stop reinforcing mass shooters
The media frenzy around the latest mass shooting at a school has now passed. We can get back to our day-to-day lives. We don’t have to watch the constant b-roll of kids being led away from danger by armored police with assault rifles, half-jogging with their hands on their heads. No more intrusive interviews of parents and kids who just want to be reunited with one another. Schools and PTAs have responded to parents’ calls for increased security with emails, town-hall meetings, and fresh shelter-in-place drills. Teachers and administrators have returned to common core curricula and the daily hassles of budgets and parents with duller axes to grind.
Now—between crises—is the best time to plan to prevent or respond to the next. As kids and those who support them march in solidarity against gun violence, we can focus wisely and dispassionately on ways to prevent all kinds of violence. We must examine gun policy and school safety. We must examine the ways in which mental illness and violent video games influence violent actors. But the media—while feeding a public hungry for debate, scandal, and tragedy—must take a good, hard look at its own role in perpetuating mass violence. It may be the most powerful and readily available tool we have to stem the tide of mass violence incidents.
Mass shooters appeal to media. Once an outlet has someone on-site to provide you with every (often wrong or completely irrelevant) detail about the event, everything else stops. Intrepid reporters interview eye witnesses, who are often in shock or weren’t as close to the action as you’re led to believe. They speculate on details they cannot yet confirm. They find ways to give this fresh tragedy more gravity than the last: while it’s not the highest body count in US history, it is the highest in this state or in this town. You’re hooked: there is no turning away now.
The media appeals to mass shooters. They know you will be captivated by the terror and carnage they cause. Mass shooters delight in fantasies about their pictures and names being broadcast, and repeated, and repeated. They know that the media—and you—will spend time trying to understand their rampage. They will no longer be ignored, or overlooked, or bullied. They will be in control of everything, not only during their crime, but in the follow-up coverage of it. You’re hooked: there is no turning away now.
Mass shooters are inspired by media coverage of violent events. As of October 2015, the mass shooting at Columbine High School served as the inspiration for 74 known copycat cases. Three of those attackers “made pilgrimages” to Columbine while planning their attacks. The mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech occurred almost exactly eight years after the attack at Columbine. The perpetrator in that incident had mailed a 1,800-word manifesto, along with photos and video to NBC for them to broadcast during and after his crime. The man who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Tucson, AZ in 2011 grinned as his mugshot was taken, knowing it would appear on the cover of multiple newspapers and over the shoulder of every news anchor. He imagined your fear, your revulsion. He basked in it.
Media coverage not only inspires mass shooters, it helps them plan their attacks. In the wake of these events, the media hosts a parade of pundits and experts—often well-intentioned—to educate and empower the public and to advertise their expertise and services. While many find this information enlightening and comforting, the next potential perpetrator is watching, studying, and planning.
There are concrete steps we can take toward breaking up the love affair mass shooters have with the media. Psychologists and other mental health experts who specialize in suicide prevention know how to limit contagion through responsible reportage. While suicides are newsworthy, experts in suicide prevention urge the media to limit their reporting on any one suicide. They also recommend that the media resist glorifying the person who has died, that they limit reporting details about the death, and that the media focus on the fact that suicide is preventable and where to get help. The same principles can be applied to reporting mass shootings.
First, the media should use dispassionate language when reporting a mass shooting. The media should refer to “the event” and “the perpetrator” without using descriptors like “tragedy,” “rampage,” or “monster.”
Second, the media should refrain from speculation and report only those details confirmed by first responders or law enforcement. The media should rely on experts for their information in all cases. In each of these crimes, those treating victims and investigating the incident are the authority on all matters related to it. While it may be good TV for a reporter or an anchor to report unconfirmed details, those do not inform or empower the public. Speculation also hurts the credibility of the news source. The media should take the cue from the authority running the news conference when they say, “We are not ready to provide you with that information right now.”
Next, the media must bring calm in times of crisis. Events like mass shootings trip up the media’s well-choreographed dance. Pay careful attention during the next event that suspends commercial breaks and you will catch the missteps. You’ll see confused anchors touching their earpiece to better hear the news that a source didn’t show. There will be endless video of an empty podium as they wait for a press conference that was supposed to happen 45 minutes ago. An expert’s cell phone will cut out or distort her voice. It is at these times that we need the media not to chase the lead, but to provide sober, well-organized coverage of the facts.
Fourth, the media should decrease the number of times they use the assailant’s name or broadcast his image or message. Most—if not all—mass shooters are motivated by fame. Quite simply, they want the highest or most horrific body count or the longest duration coverage without a commercial break. Those things only come to them if their names, photos, or manifestos are broadcast. While newsworthy, these facts should be reported sparingly. The more the media resists our hunger to see the face of the perpetrator, to know him, and to understand him, the less attractive the crime becomes to the next perpetrator.
Finally, experts must make themselves available to speak to and through the media. For many reasons, the psychologists and other experts who have evidence-based knowledge of violence and its perpetrators are unlikely to seek media appearances. For us to make effective changes in policy and public opinion, we must ally with those with the lights, the cameras, the audience or the followers.
As experts and pundits and the public debate the Second Amendment, let’s harness the incredible power of those who champion the First Amendment. Let’s leverage the responsibility that comes with their power and block the next mass shooter’s path to infamy.
This piece originally appeared on ShrinkTank.com.