Stop Sensationalizing Shootings

By Sean Glendon

Does the name Steve Curnrow ring a bell? How about Erin Peterson? Maybe Noah Pozner sounds familiar? Veronica Moser-Sullivan? No? Kenneth Bernard Proctor? Here’s a second list of names: Eric Harris. Dylan Kleboid. Seung-Hui Cho. Adam Lanza. James Holmes. Aaron Alexis. I’m sure you’ve recognized that second list as the list as the perpetrators in the mass shootings of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook,  Aurora, and the Washington Navy Yard respectively. At this point, you might be wondering how the first list of names is connected, and it’s quite simple; the first list is made up of the youngest victims of these shootings.

Media coverage ensures that you won’t forget the killers’ names, but also fails to truly humanize the victims in the atrocious events. Rest in Peace to all of the victims from the horrible acts of domestic terrorism, and may the perpetrators rot in hell/jail. FROM HERE ON OUT, I WILL NOT BE REFERRING TO THE KILLERS BY NAME. They will be referred to, based on the location of their crime.

Collectively, the 6 men named in the latter list were responsible for were responsible for 96 deaths and 118 injuries (NOTE: I’m not including the gunmen who died even though they responsible for their own deaths). Out of the 209 victims that have not been mentioned, how many can you even name? My guess is a handful, if that.

There is a much better chance that you’ve heard that the perpetrator in the Aurora attacks was camera shy, and didn’t appear in his 10th grade yearbook, or that the Aurora offender ran cross country in high school. It’s common knowledge that the Columbine criminals loved violent video games and referred to themselves as the “Trenchcoat Mafia”. The media mention miniscule details about these men, speculate on motives, and plaster pictures of them all over the place.

For a week after the Navy Yard Shooting, I couldn’t pass through the dining hall without seeing a report on the killer. Why is this the case? It’s an easy way for them to get viewers for a few days: there’s a narrative to work with, comparisons to make and a story to tell. In reality, the media have absolutely no problem talking about a victim, as long as that victim comes with a storyline that can lead to higher ratings. Examples of well known victims in these mass shootings include Victoria Soto, a teacher that sacrificed her own life to save her first grade Sandy Hook Elementary School students, as well as Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves, who all died shielding their girlfriends from the bullets of the Aurora assailant. Even including coverage of these victims, and the occasional other victim with a sidestory, there is a huge focus, borderlining on obsession, with the killers.

Alex Teves’ father is an outspoken member of train of thought, that is increasing in popularity across the nation. He thinks that the media is handling coverage horrifically, and  that as a result, these killers are being glorified. In an interview with CNN he said “so somebody took a gun and went in and shot a 6-year-old girl? Why are we talking about that person?” He then elaborated, saying that he wishes that CNN and other media networks would “come out with a policy that said, ‘Moving forward, we’re not going to talk about the gunman. What we’re going to say is: A coward walked into a movie theater and started shooting people. He’s apprehended. The coward is in jail. He will never see the light of day again.’”

Dave Cullen, author of the New York Times Bestseller “Columbine,” has spent 10 years researching Columbine and is considered by many to be an expert in the field of mass shootings. He offers a rare professional perspective, and also believes that the media needs to reevaluate its role. He feels that through sensationalized coverage, “we put them on stage– you can call him hero, anti-hero, something — we give them a starring role in this.” Similar to Mr. Teves, he offers a simple adjustment as a solution: “You just call him the killer, the perpetrator, the gunman, the suspect, all sorts of different things. It’s very easy to do. We disappear him.” When a popular film critic, Roger Ebert, was asked if violent movies play a roles in these types of crimes, he responded by directing blame towards the media. “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. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”  Finally, Dr. Park Dietz, a forensics psychiatrist who has been involved in high profile cases, including the cases of the Unabomber and Jeffrey Dahmer, said “We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”  Coming from different walks of life, these people who probably have never even heard of each other offer commentary that sound eerily similar to each other.  And they all bring up a really good point.

What if the media is affecting the number of mass shootings? What if giving these killers the spotlight is inspiring others to follow in their footsteps? From an ethical standpoint, the media should reassess their role, and refocus their coverage. Let us learn more about the victims, whose lives were cut short tragically. Let us take some suggestions from these people and avoid showing the killer. Avoid naming him. Avoid making him an icon. In the words of freelance writer Lilly O’Donnell, “Picking apart the life of a disturbed kid will not bring back the dead ones.”

A main argument against the idea of limited coverage of killers is that this would involve withholding information from the public, but that isn’t the case at all. Facts can be presented without glorifying those responsible for these acts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with talking about a crime as it is developing. The public has a right to know, and the freedom of the press is explicitly stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution, so their choice to report on a case holds some ground. However, weeks later there is no need for a discussion over the killers hobbies, internet history, breakfast habits (mandatory Walt Jr. reference), and report cards. Civilization won’t come to a halt if we aren’t told that the Navy Yard shooter considered himself a Buddhist. This isn’t a call to censor the news, it’s a recommendation to change the way these events are reported.

On December 15th, 2012, The Observer released an article titled “Adam Lanza: The Quiet Friendless Boy Whom No One Knew.” The wording of this title suggests that the killer was a victim in this situation, that we should somehow sympathize with him. It also refers to him as THE Quiet Friendless Boy. Hours earlier, he was just “A quiet friendless boy.” It’s not implausible that somebody that was in a similar situation, living a life lacking friends, realized that it’s very possible to go from “A” to “THE” overnight.

When sporting events were plagued with streaking, networks recognized the problem and realized a potential solution. The nude antics were so individuals could get their 15 minutes of fame on television, and networks responded by cutting to commercial breaks to ensure that their 15 minutes never came to fruition. As a result, streaking steadily declined. Obviously, these extremely different circumstances cannot be used as definitive proof, but they do show the impact that broadcasting networks can have on seemingly unrelated events. Unfortunately, the media has no reason to stop this type of coverage, as long as their ratings are steady. To get this to change, people need to turn off their television when the sensationalized coverage begins, instead of tuning in. With a drop in ratings, they would have no choice but to make a change, because let’s be honest, the media don’t really have take the moral high road in most cases. When it comes to headlines, the media follow a policy of “If it bleeds, it leads.” I say “if it leads, others will follow,” and as long as the media continue to report in this manner, this problem will not go away.

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