As we approach the sad anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, I’d like to ask a couple of questions: Can you name any of the Columbine high school shooters? Do you know the name of the Newtown shooter?
Of course you do.
Now, can you name any of their victims?
And that is exactly what the mass murderers wanted.
Typically, media coverage of rampage shootings focuses the spotlight on the killer. Was he crazy (most mass shooters don’t survive the event)? Was he bullied—humiliated…what drove him to such extremes?
Mass killers are not crazy in the usual sense of having “snapped” and lost control. Far from it. Most mass killings have been carefully planned and prepared. There is method in their madness.
Rampage shooters kill for the public spectacle. They kill for the media attention.
Massacre killers typically are collectors of injustice, who nurture their past humiliations and are filled with resentment. Their violent thoughts are grandiose revenge fantasies against a cruel or indifferent world that will finally take note of their grievances. Rampage killers and terrorists are one and the same under the skin. What terrorists add to the mix are only political ideology and a community that supports their violence.
Both rampage killers and terrorists are motivated by the desire to broadcast their complaints—and to become famous for the grand scale of the carnage they cause. Rampage killers and terrorists are motivated by media attention.
Now that we know the important role news reporting plays in mass killings, the challenge for journalists is how to do their jobs without playing into the killer’s agendas. Ari N. Schulman, writing in the Wall Street Journal (Saturday/Sunday, November 9-10, 2013) recommends the following steps for responsible reporting that would deprive mass killers of the audience they seek:
• Never publish a shooter’s propaganda
• Hide their names and faces
• Don’t report on biography or speculate on motive
• Minimize specifics and gory details
• No photos or videos of the event
• Talk about victims but minimize images of grieving families
• Tell a different story.
The media have already cooperated in the case of suicides. Studies of suicide found a copycat effect—more reporting of the specific means of suicide led to more suicides. They found a dampening effect on the spread of suicides when journalists also reported stories of people who considered suicide, but found help and chose life instead.
The classic reporters’ questions: who, what, when, where, why and how—can be treated in many ways. Some will hurt. Others will help. Alternative, healthy and life-affirming means of reporting need to be explored, now that there is no doubt about th