Although I own a TV, it is used almost exclusively to watch DVDs and I have not watched TV news or any programs in ages, preferring to get both via the radio or the internet. But I can imagine that there must have been wall-to-wall coverage of the shootings at the elementary school last week. My local newspaper the Plain Dealer had massive front-page, above the fold coverage of the news on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday even though the events took place in a distant state and had no local connection.
We take it for granted that such massive national, and even international, coverage of such events is warranted. The news media can justify it by saying that even though this was a local event, it was so shocking that people want to know more about it. In this old cartoon, Tom Tomorrow suggests that nothing much will change as a result of all this hyperventilating and that we have to just get used to going through this over and over again.
But is such massive coverage itself part of the problem? Does it in fact actually encourage similar future actions by giving potential killers, often people who feel isolated and unappreciated, the feeling that they can achieve fame and immortality by going out in a blaze of glory, guns blazing, a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Most of the recent killings have involved the shooters killing themselves even before facing a confrontation with the police, suggesting that they had already decided to die.
Young (and sometimes older) people who feel unappreciated often have romantic fantasies that it is only when they die that those around them who have ignored them thus far will realize what a brilliant and wonderful person they have lost. For such people, seeing how people pore over every detail of the lives of the killers may turn out to be a dangerous motivator. As an example of this kind of media excess, the Plain Dealer has been covering the trial of an area high school student who in February killed, seemingly at random, three of his fellow students in the cafeteria. It seems like every day they run a photo of him as if he were a celebrity. In Monday’s paper, they had two different photos of him, one on the front page of the Metro section and another on the inside page where the story continued. Why is it necessary for us to show us what he looks like every day of his trial?
It may be that perhaps the best thing to do after such events is to try and actually suppress the story, keep it as local as possible. This will be hard to do. In their news ratings wars, TV stations thrive on such events, milking them for stories long after they have exhausted their actual news content. Cory Doctorow describes the experience of film critic Roger Ebert who tells what happened to him in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shooting.
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
In another post, Doctorow pointed to a report by Charlie Brooker where he deplored the obsessive attention paid to the minutest details of the life of a young German mass killer who mowed down 16 people in 2009. He plays a clip of a forensic psychiatrist who says that the best thing the media could do is play down the story, keep it local, and never, ever, focus attention on the killer’s image and life, because you then risk making him into some kind of anti-hero.
It may be impossible to prevent the news media from their obsessive coverage of such events. But it may be possible to get them to agree on some voluntary restraints, such as to have a blackout on reporting on the lives and personalities of the killers, to deprive them of the publicity they may have craved and have them die in obscurity, to be studied only by the professionals and scholars of crime. After all, we already have media agreement to not publish the names of minors or that of rape victims. Surely we can have a voluntary agreement to not report the names and lives of such mass killers and not show their photos? It won’t stop the 15,000 single person homicides per year but it may prevent a few of these rampages.
There is really no benefit in telling the rest of us the minutest details except to indulge us in our desire to practice armchair psychology.