It’s the type of story we’ve seen far too often in recent years. A person—often male—with a real or imaginary chip on his shoulder vents his rage through the barrel of a gun, taking the lives of innocent victims unlucky enough to cross his path. This past week brought us yet one more of these all-too-familiar mass shooting incidents. This time the perpetrator was a disgruntled former TV reporter, mercilessly—some might say cowardly—taking out his anger live on television against a reporter and a camera operator for the station that dismissed him in 2013.
Yet in watching media coverage of this and other high-profile shooting incidents from this summer— including the murders of nine parishioners at a predominantly African-American church in South Carolina and of two young women at a Louisiana movie theater—I’ve been struck by a noticeable shift in the way some media outlets are now covering such tragedies.
The Traditional Focus Has Been on the Shooter
Media coverage of mass shootings has traditionally focused on the shooter—why he did it, how he did it, his personal history and lifestyle, where he obtained his weapon(s), etc. There are the obligatory sidebar stories about the victims and who they were, but the media’s focus has typically been squarely on the person pulling the trigger. More recently, however, the tide seems to be turning in favor of a more balanced approach as the media becomes more sensitive to criticism that it too often sensationalizes mass killings and those who perpetrate them. Perhaps part of the reason for this media wake-up call is the fact that mass killers are becoming more media savvy themselves.
Mass Killers and the Media: Recent Examples
- Prior to killing six people in a rampage near the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara in May 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old son of a Hollywood filmmaker, uploaded a YouTube video in which he explains his motivations, including his social isolation and lack of a girlfriend.
- And following the Charleston church killings this past June investigators found a website that featured photos of alleged shooter Dylann Roof, 21, posing with a gun and the Confederate flag and that included a 2,500-word racist manifesto.
In both of these cases, and in others, the shooter or alleged shooter clearly had given advance thought to how the media would cover his horrific acts. So they left behind images and words online that not only suggest their motivations but that allow them to influence how the media would portray them.
Roanoke Shooting: One More Example to Consider
The decision by Vester Flanagan, a 41-year-old former TV news reporter, to murder reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward live on local TV several days ago near Roanoke, Virginia, was surely made with the thought of creating a spectacle in mind. The fact that Flanagan videotaped the killings himself and posted them to Facebook is further testament to the lengths some of today’s mass killers will go to generate attention for themselves and their misdeeds.
As my colleague and workplace violence prevention expert SVP Matthew Doherty pointed out in a very interesting blog last year – “Intercepting the Path to Violence – From Malls to Schools, It’s About Targeted Violence”– keep in mind that targeted violence research into the thinking and behavior of attackers in most cases identified motives that included achieving notoriety or fame or bringing attention to a personal or public problem.
Are Media Producers Hip to This Manipulation – and Changing Their Strategy?
Maybe this time, it’s different. Perhaps it’s because the victims were media professionals themselves, but it seems as though some in the media have finally gotten the message that the way they cover mass shootings may unwittingly play a role in causing them. Focusing primarily on the shooter, as the media has done for decades, all but invites future shootings by promising instant fame to anyone who dares perpetrate such outrageous acts. At the same time, the media can’t be faulted for giving viewers what they want. And the sad fact is that it’s only human nature to want to know what compels the rare few to commit such heinous crimes, as proven by our society’s infatuation with TV shows and movies about serial killers.
Our Right to Balanced Coverage – Without Provoking or Rewarding the Unstable Few
Yet the media owe it to the public to report about mass killings responsibly. Yes, this means providing details about the killer and his or her motives, but balancing that with greater focus on the victims and their families provides a fuller picture of the tragedy.
Of course, the news business is hypercompetitive, and the drive to tell the story first will always be there, especially for widely followed stories such as mass shootings. But in its quest to beat the competition the media must be ever mindful of how it treats these types of stories, and the influence its coverage may have on those unstable few sitting in the audience who may be contemplating a way they could garner such attention.