On Feb. 14, the nation will mark the first anniversary of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fl., that claimed the precious lives of 17 students and teachers. In the year following that massacre, there were at least 53 additional incidents of gunfire on high school and college campuses around the country.
As Americans learned the names and saw the faces of these killers and victims, fear and outrage grew.
The 24-hour news coverage of the Parkland massacre was typical, and seemingly based on the assumptions of reporters and TV news producers that consumers are drawn to stories of mass murder because of morbid curiosity. Thus, much of the Parkland coverage focused on the killer’s background and apparent motivation, as well as the plight of his victims.
The grisly scenes of mass carnage, the videos of students running for their lives from the school building, and the tearful responses of the victims’ families and friends undoubtedly aroused collective empathy among news consumers around the country.
Many audience members surely identified with the innocent victims and their families, and also looked to news reports for “red flags” that might prevent future attacks. The problem, though, is that excessive attention to a mass murderer and his victims also fuels the dreaded copycat phenomenon.
In addition to those who sympathize with the victims, unfortunately there are at least a few in the audience who identify with the killer. In these cases, they sadistically enjoy viewing the grisly consequences of a school shooting while studying the details, perhaps in hopes of replicating (or even outdoing) that violence elsewhere in the future.
In this way, news reports about a mass murder may serve as a training session for potential killers who use the tragic circumstances of a school massacre as inspiration.
For nearly 20 years, school shooters in countries around the world have referred to the April 20, 1999 slaughter at Columbine High School as their model for gaining fame and enacting revenge. Some killers, particularly those who do not expect to survive their planned attack, leave behind letters, manifestos, photographs and videos that explain their rationale, often in hopes of media outlets around the world publishing their material.
*The killers who intend to survive may envision their name in the headlines, their image on TV, or perhaps even a documentary about their life. Some killers just want to be recognized and remembered — to live on in infamy — and often that’s exactly what we give them.
As part of efforts to combat these dangerous messages in U.S. news stories and to lessen the inspiration for would-be murderers seeking fame, several crime scholars have applied increasing pressure on news media outlets to change the ways they cover incidents of mass murder.
Stop Publishing Killer’s Name?
Criminologists Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis proposed that news organizations stop publishing the names and photographs of these killers, and the “No Notoriety” campaign adds to that list killers’ self-created content like videos, artwork, and manifestos. The idea is to eliminate the potential for recognition or fame that motivates many of these killers.
It seems that some journalists are heeding the call, as the killer’s name was sparingly used in reports about the Parkland school massacre.
Moreover, CNN’s Anderson Cooper has indicated he will avoid the names and identifying characteristics in future coverage of high-profile mass shootings.
An alternative avenue for news outlets is to focus more coverage on the heroic responders who are involved in mass murder incidents, such as students, faculty, staff members and security personnel who demonstrate bravery in dire circumstances.
It appears that there were more than a few heroes at the Parkland school when the shooting began, including the janitor who ushered numerous students out of the hallway, the 15-year-old student who died holding the door open so that others could escape, the football coach who lost his life after stepping in front of the killer’s bullets to protect students, and the geography teacher who shielded his students from gunfire.
Crime has long been one of the most widely followed news topics, so news outlets may hesitate to change their coverage because of concerns about declining sales. Yet public interest in crime news does not necessarily mean that consumers are getting what they want from that coverage.
In fact, we recently published an experiment that was designed to examine the source of consumer interest in news about extreme acts of fatal violence, and the findings produced some potentially important, if counterintuitive, results.
We first developed three versions of a hypothetical news story about a massacre at a high school, including photographs (one of a teenage boy and one of a school building with students filing out), headlines, a pull quote, and a paragraph of the story. All versions included identical elements and differed only by the story focus: One centered on the life of the killer, one on the killer’s first victim, and one on a courageous student who helped to save lives.
The versions were randomly assigned to more than 200 respondents so that one-third read about the mass killer, one-third read about the victim, and one-third read about the heroic student. All respondents were then asked whether they wanted to read more of the news story.
Our findings revealed that respondents were significantly more interested in reading about the heroic efforts of a student who saved lives, compared to stories about the killer or one of his victims.
Our study suggests that sensational reporting that contains grisly details of a heinous crime may actually repel consumers who are more interested in learning about heroic behavior at the crime scene.
Moreover, focusing on heroism at the site of a horrific school shooting may offer an additional advantage for society: If the copycat effect works to inspire potential killers, it might also work to motivate rescuers who risk their lives to save others.
Levin is professor emeritus and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. Wiest is an associate professor of sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. They are co-authors of The Allure of Premeditated Murder, published in 2018. Readers’ comments are welcome.