An All-Too-Easy Way to Fame

How the media perpetuates mass shootings.

Posted Jun 26, 2018

A person can become as famous as Brad Pitt or LeBron James but with no practice and even less talent: With one horrific act, this person's picture can be published on the front pages of every newspaper and shown on every TV station. Seven mass killers alone received roughly $75 million in free publicity, writes Adam Lankford, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama, in a 2018 article in Celebrity Studies.

While mass shooters become celebrities, victims are often forgotten. Ironically, mass shooters may be humanized, with stories about their backgrounds and whatever motivation may be ascribed to them. The individuality of those murdered is reduced to one story among many and remembered largely by family and friends.

By elevating the mass shooter, the media increases the likelihood of mass shooting occurring again. Mass shooters attract a following on social media. Studies of mass shootings lead to the conclusion that many shooters are copycats or fame seekers or both.

Widespread coverage of mass shootings in the mass media has led 149 experts to call upon the press to change how it covers such shootings.

On average, the United States experiences a mass shooting once every two weeks and school shootings once a month. Many factors account for this, but one that is incontrovertibly true is how the shootings are covered by the media. This has led journalists to question whether they are at least in part to blame for their role in America’s mass shootings. Angela Morris, in Quill, the magazine of the Society for Professional Journalists, quotes Silvia Foster-Frau, the San Antonio Express News lead reporter for the Sutherland church shooting: “Newsrooms need to be having more serious conversations about how we are covering mass traumas in our community… Bring them to the table and talk about what is best practice—what’s in the best interests in the society we live in.”

The media has an obligation to inform society about information that is relevant to them as citizens. Society also has the right to be safe. Does showing the photo of a mass shooter add anything to a story that makes us better informed? Or does it make us less safe? The answer is clear. We put ourselves and our children in greater danger every time we turn a shooter into a celebrity.

The next time there is a mass shooting, ask yourself: Did you need to see what the shooter looked like? Did you need to read several stories written about the shooter?

The mass media won’t stop featuring mass shooters unless the public isn’t interested in reading about them. When does our curiosity to know more about depraved people become voyeurism; when do we become part of the problem?   

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