Media Make ‘Remarkable’ Shift in Covering Mass Shooters

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As news of the school shooting in Santa Clarita, Ca., broke last month, one key piece of information was absent from the headlines and initial internet search results: the name of the perpetrator. Though police had identified the gunman, many news outlets gave his name and description low billing in their reporting.

It’s part of a reporting shift over the past few years that goes well beyond decisions about using names or images.

In response to research suggesting that extensive coverage of these assailants may encourage others to follow suit, many outlets have chosen to devote less coverage to perpetrators and more to victims and to the laws and policies that have not prevented the incidents, says the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics.

Coverage of early mass shootings focused heavily on perpetrators, a fact that did not escapedlater perpetrators seeking such attention. So many people have admired the Columbine attackers that the phenomenon has a name — “the Columbine effect” — and admirers have a name too: “Columbiners.” The teenage gunman who killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Fl., said in a cell phone video, “I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018 … It’s going to be a big event. When you see me on the news you’ll all know who I am.”

“Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm,” says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.”

Al Tompkins, a faculty member at Poynter, doesn’t believe outlets should stop naming perpetrators altogether. “There’s a difference between reporting and glorifying,” he said.

Reporting on the assailant’s behavior can provide an important service. “Virtually every mass shooter in the last 20 years has left behind a substantial trail of evidence that somebody could have stopped it,” Tompkins said.

“You’ll never know everything we should and could know about the shooters — about what motivates them, who they are and so on — unless we take time to figure out who they are.”

New York Times Deputy National Desk Editor Julie Bloom said the newspaper has taken steps to avoid feeding into the violence. It’s not rules but “more just a …  sense of this is how to responsibly handle it,” she says. “We don’t want to be a platform …  for giving attention to gunmen or attackers.”

Times reporter Julie Turkewitz said this means making choices about how to portray gunmen. She says descriptions of an assailant’s outfit — for example, whether he wore white supremacist symbols or body armor — can become problematic, as they “sort of turn them into an image of an action figure,” whose image other perpetrators ritualize and copy.

Many news outlets, such as Trace, have shifted coverage from assailants to the victims, survivors and their families, whose emotional and physical wounds will last lifetimes.

The issue has been a frequent topic at journalists’ meetings. At a June 2018 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.

Additional Reading:

Media More Cautious About Naming Mass Shooters, The Crime Report, July 7, 2019

Mass Shooters Names Go Everywhere on Social Media, The Crime Report, Sept. 3, 2019


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