How mass killings should be covered

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.


  1. Henry Gale says

    In China they try to suppress protests, industrial accidents, school killings and the like to the local level. It works better for rural areas that cities on the coast. This is something I’m not a supporter of.

    That said, I think the news should never mention the name of the shooter in a mass shooting. Let the killing of another never be a path to fame.

  2. says

    I hate the reporting even aside from the coverage of the killers. The sappy music and titles, the soft-focus pictures of candles and kids holding teddy bears, the standard tropes (“innocence lost,” “precious angels,” “finding strength in their faith,”…). The constant reminders of how sad it is, like people would otherwise miss that. And it’s the same for every such event. And then they move on.

    I know they’re doing their jobs, but the prepackaged sentimentality is disrespectful.

  3. stephenyutzy says

    I agree, the media does have a right and probably a need to report on these things, but to keep track of body counts and rank mass murders on a scale against other tragedies is simply absurd.

    I’ve found myself lately hoping that something would displace the recent shooting from the news. And a large reason why is that the insane amount of news coverage gives the incorrect assumption that these tragic events are becoming more and more common.

    In a story by the AP and reported in The Blaze:

    Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.

    Some other mass murder statistics, this time reported by Slate:

    According to data compiled by Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, guns killed an average of 4.92 victims per mass murder in the United States during the 20th century, just edging out knives, blunt objects, and bare hands, which killed 4.52 people per incident. Fire killed 6.82 people per mass murder, while explosives far outpaced the other options at 20.82.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    The local school systems whereever I have lived (multiple states, at this point) have always had a policy of not publicizing suicides, not commenting in the media, and not having special memorial services at the schools. Suicides, the reasoning went, are too often copied; the last thing any school wants is an epidemic.

  5. Thorne says

    While the benefit to society may be questionable, the benefit to the news organizations is quite substantial. More incidents such as this means more coverage, more viewers, more sponsors. In short, more money for the news organizations. They’re unlikely to want to cut their own throats by agreeing to NOT provide such coverage. And it would only take one news station ignoring such an agreement to start a flood of organizations away from it.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I always think of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus at times like these.. Contemporaries said it was the most beautiful building of the ancient world, but it was burned down in 356 BC by a young man named Herostratus, for the avowed reason that he wanted his name to live for ever. He was tortured to death and historians were forbidden to mention his name, but one did, and he was immortalized by the term “herostratic fame.”

    If it was impossible to stop glory seekers from doing outrageous things back when the only source of immortality was a handful of scribes, I doubt we could ever come to an agreement on something similar today. I’m afraid Ebert is right, but that this is simply an inevitable consequence of living in a media world.

  7. unbound says

    Thorne has the truth of it. Since news programming relies on ad revenue in lieu of being an actual public service, they have absolutely no incentive to behave better.

    I am loath to consider creating laws to inhibit such behavior (too many ways that it can be used to suppress information as Henry Gale points out in China), so it seems we need to find a way of getting new programming to not be based on profits.

  8. Chrisetti says

    Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe should be mandatory viewing in schools. He thoroughly disects the way the news is assembled and lays it bare, usually for us to laugh at the utter ridiculousness of it all.

    Have morning assemblies start with “The Week In Bullshit” rather than goddy platitudes.

  9. gridironmonger says

    If the federal government (i.e. the FCC) had any fortitude, it would find a way to remind these for-profit infotainment media conglomerations that using the publicly owned EM spectrum is a privilege which the public has granted them, whose cost is not only the licensing fees but also serving the public’s interest. But it’s never going to happen.

  10. gridironmonger says

    Also, when I was an adolescent, I thought Roger Ebert was a fat loudmouth because he often didn’t like the bad action movies that my immature tastes found entertaining. As I’ve gotten older and seen more (and better) cinema, and read some of Roger Ebert’s writings beyond his movie reviews, I’ve realized something. He isn’t (and wasn’t) fat. He’s just full of win.

  11. says

    If the federal government (i.e. the FCC) had any fortitude, it would find a way to remind these for-profit infotainment media conglomeration

    You have the relationship backwards. Who do you think works for whom?

  12. jaybee says

    I think we should make it a policy that the news organizations, if they publish anything about a mass murderer, should be required to publish something humiliating about the killer, even if they have to make it up.

    “Today we learned that Gary Wayne Monroe, who killed 28 people at the circus yesterday, was probably motivated by angst over his small manhood. Investigators were attempting to understand why Monroe kept an extensive booger collection in the desk drawer of his office. Coworkers mentioned Monroe’s terrible hygiene, but none were aware of the booger collection. Forensic investigation found a trove of digital photographs of what investigators described as a zit fetish.”

  13. sailor1031 says

    “…But it may be possible to get them to agree on some voluntary restraints…”. As if. Not as long as they claim to be giving the great american public what it wants – NEWS – in a competitive marketplace.

  14. Mano Singham says

    What is depressing about this model of behavior is that the perpetrators have to keep upping the level of atrocity to get the same amount of reaction and notoriety. I shudder to think what is going through some person’s mind right now.

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