Should the Media Limit Coverage of Mass Shooters?

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Youth pastor Julie Outzen of Denver, Co. reflects at the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Co.during the ten-year anniversary commemoration of the Columbine High School shootings in 2009. Photo by mpiscotty via Flickr

In the nearly two decades since two students committed a massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, the news media have done extensive reporting on a long series of shooters at other schools and elsewhere.

More experts and victims are concluding that enough is enough, citing a growing body of evidence citing mass shooters who have said that a major goal of their acts is to achieve fame via news reports.

In an unusual session, one of the chief media critics, criminologist Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama, was invited to make his case last week to a major organization of journalists. He got a sympathetic reaction.

Last year, Lankford co-edited an issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist titled “Media Coverage of Mass Killers: Content, Consequences, and Solutions.”

In it, academics and others argue that the media should be more careful about covering mass shooters.

“When someone is desperate for fame or attention,” Lankford says, “committing a high-profile mass killing is one of the only guaranteed ways to get it. In many cases, winning a Super Bowl or Academy Award garners less media attention than committing one of these crimes.”

Last fall, 149 academics joined in an open letter urging media organizations not to name or use photos of mass shooters, “stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators (and) report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.”

In last week’s panel discussion at the annual convention of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), University of Missouri journalism Prof. Katherine Reed, herself a former journalist, worried that the media “may be making celebrities” out of mass killers, encouraging others to copy them.

Lankford quoted a series of shooters who indicated in statements made before their crimes that they were either “attention-seekers or copycats.”

Included was the shooter of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who said, “I’ll see you on national TV,” and the killer at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre, who called the local TV outlet News 13 during his attack and then checked online to see if he had “gone viral.”

The Parkland shooter said, “When you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am,” and the Santa Fe, Tx., school shooter explained that he wanted to “have his story told.”

It isn’t only a matter of seeking fame, Lankford said. By doing stories about each event that focus on how many people were killed in comparison with previous episodes, the media are encouraging shooters to set new records, he maintained.

The shooter in February in a Parkland, Fl., high school, for example, said that his goal was to kill at least 20 people. (He got close, killing 17.)

Lankford does not flatly contend that media should never give a shooter’s name, but he offered an option that the name be mentioned only in an initial story and not be reported in follow-up stories. “How often does the public need this information?” he asked at the meeting with journalists.

Media organizations should not be expected to suppress shooters’ names, Lankford said, but he suggested that after reporting on the initial shooting, media outlets might confine information about the shooter to one page of their websites and not repeatedly mention it in follow-up stories.

Dawn Clapperton, senior producer for investigations at WTVJ, the NBC television affiliate in Miami, which covered the Parkland shooting, said that the station’s staff has had internal discussions about taking care to use appropriate words in describing mass shootings and showing sensitivity to victims in covering such events.

Clapperton said her station decided to use the word “massacre” sparingly, for example.

Lisa Cianci, news content director at the Orlando Sentinel, led coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 were killed. The coverage was intensive, with 48 stories in the first 24 hours after the event, covering nine pages in print. The newspaper also produced 26 videos.

The newspaper “kept the victims in the forefront,” writing obituaries on each of them, Cianci said, and did not show the shooter’s photo on its front page.

Lankford contends that important details about a mass shooting, including who
committed the attack (age, sex, race, religion, background, mental health, criminal record, behavior, etc.) does not require publishing the perpetrator’s name or face.

He contends that limiting identification of the shooter is consistent with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which calls on media to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harms” and to avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Lankford says that “denying mass shooters de facto celebrity status and
widespread fame does not require keeping their names completely confidential.”

He notes that the names of shooters still will be a matter of public record and widely known, including by witnesses, families, and local community members.

One unofficial experiment took place this year in after a Kentucky school shooting, when the news media withheld the offender’s name for several weeks because he was only 15 years old.


Tabloids cover mass shootings. Photo by scleroplex via Flickr

Lankford contends that the absence of a name “didn’t limit the depth or quality of coverage,” He says that some news outlets ran video footage of his arrest (in which his face was blurred out) and interviews of classmates who described his personality and behavior in detail.

No media representative offered a detailed rebuttal of Lankford at the journalists’ discussion last week, but Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute has contended that it is legitimate for the media to name mass shooters.

McBride says that, “When you name an individual and tell his story, you give people important context for the backstory,” and that “knowing who was behind the gun allows us to identify trends,” such as that most mass acts of violence have been committed by young white males.”

Naming the shooter also can prevent misinformation, she says, recalling that after the 2012 Newton, Ct., school shooting, some media outlets misidentified the shooter as his brother.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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