Striving to be as accurate and as fair as possible in our reporting should be the number one goal of any practicing journalist.
But minimizing harm should be a close second.
The pursuit of facts and news is not an excuse for harming innocent people or victims. This especially goes for young kids and survivors of sexual crimes. I myself cherry-pick information from the police blotter because I feel strongly about not publishing information about private domestic disputes or violence. Printing that information would only serve to harm and humiliate the victims of violence and oppression, the very people I want to protect and serve through my writing.
But how far does that protection extend? In the aftermath of the Umpqua Community College massacre, and the subsequent shootings at universities in Arizona and Texas, many people have started calling for the news media to take responsibility for its scrutinizing coverage of mass shootings, claiming that such irresponsible reporting can encourage further shootings.
Some just call for a desensationalization of how news media reports on mass shootings, but others, like Roseburg Sheriff John Hanlin, are demanding that news organizations no longer even name of the gunmen.
Hanlin told the BBC that reporting shooter Chris Harper Mercer’s name “would only serve to encourage future shooters.”
This logic relies on the phenomenon called “the contagion effect,” a theory that ideas can spread like a virus or bacteria to already susceptible people.
Traditionally, the contagion effect applied to the media reporting on suicides – as in, the media traditionally doesn’t report on suicides. It may give people who are already considering suicide the encouragement they need to go through with their plans, and reporting on such a personal tragedy will further harm an already reeling family.
This unspoken rule in news media is followed on a case-by-case basis. High-profile suicides like Robin Williams’ are still closely examined (or exploited, depending on who you talk to) by the news media for two reasons.
First, the death of a national star is sure to affect a great number of people, and it is important to get accurate information pumping into the public sphere before rumors spread.
Second, if it bleeds, it leads. Keeping the front page or the top news story raw and bloody with a recent tragedy is a good way to increase ratings and make money.
But with this unprecedented rise in mass shootings in this country, people are starting to wonder if the way the news media reports on mass shootings inadvertently perpetuates them, and if so, what sort of responsibilities should news media adopt to limit the possibility of contagion.
Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci told the BBC that many rampage shooters are obsessed with other murderers and their body count, using a blog post made by Mercer as a prime example.
“His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight,” Mercer wrote.
Mercer also uploaded a video of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre to the internet before he started shooting, possibly because he identified with the Sandy Hook shooter, according to the New York Times in the article, “Mass Killings Are Seen as a Kind of Contagion.” Both shooters were diagnosed with a mental disorder, shared a passion of firearms and lived with their mothers.
A study performed by forensic psychologist Dr. J. Reid Meloy revealed that three out of nine school shooters in Germany consciously imitated the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in the US. This gives credit to the idea that shooters may follow specific patterns that show up in mass shootings and do extensive research before going on their own rampage.
Sherry Towers, a researcher at Arizona State University, studied mass shootings grouped in three categories; more than four people killed, less than four people killed but more than three people injured, and school shootings, disregarding body count and the number of people injured.
Towers’ research showed national news coverage of mass shootings with a high body count and school shootings increased the possibility of another shooting occurring for the next 13 days.
At the same time, mass shootings with low body counts, even with a high number of wounded people, don’t receive the same level of national news coverage, and there was no evidence of contagion.
With all this research in mind, I want to break down the issues some people have with how news media covers mass shootings into three general points.
1) Filling the news wire with details of a shooter’s personal life and mental state gives other prospective shooters someone to identify with. “The more they identify with the characteristics of the story, the more it will increase their level of risk,” J. Kevin Cameron told the New York Times. Cameron is the director of the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response. The less details about a shooter there is, including his name, the less likely other potential shooters can identify with him.
2) The editorial language news media use to describe shooters, describing them as a “lone wolf” in reports or publishing pictures of the shooter that could be construed as “cool,” further encourages a familial connection with a gunman and inadvertently encourages more shootings.
3) Publishing the details of a mass shooting, like the actions the shooter went through and the final body count, only serve to provide other potential shooters with a blueprint for a “successful” rampage.
As a news consumer, I empathize with some of these points. A Washington newspaper, traditionally focused on local news, headlined the tragedy above the fold, although the shooting was not a local event. Should area newspapers follow these national stories for their readers, or should they leave it to larger media outlets like The Seattle Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times? A week after the Umpqua shooting, a New York Times report was published about Mercer shooting a teacher who corrected him publicly a few days prior. Is this information really necessary for the public to know, or is it sensationalizing the tragedy?
But as a journalist, I ultimately side with publishing accurate information and making it widely accessible. That’s first and foremost in my job description and life philosophy, so long as the information I publish doesn’t hurt innocent people.
So in response to those who are calling for the media to censor important information about mass shootings, here are my three counterpoints to those made above.
1) The public deserves to know who the shooter is, what he looks like, and what reasons he had for committing multiple murders. This includes going over his mental health, his access to firearms and his personal beliefs. Publishing these details may give a small group of alienated males someone to connect with on an emotional level, but it also gives the much larger public warning information as to what sorts of behavioral patterns to look for in a potential shooter.
2) News media needs to be extremely careful of how it describes and portrays gunmen. Plain and simple is better than poetic prose, even though using descriptive language gets higher ratings.
3) News outlets aren’t the only avenue potential shooters use to research other mass shootings. Instead of trying to censor that information, it’s better for the public to be aware of the details of a mass shooting through accurate news channels so they are as informed of these patterns as other potential shooters. The public’s right to know far outweighs the potential risk of this information being used for another mass killing.
Our jobs as journalists is to report accurate information and to be independent from outside influences. This obviously includes the government, but it also includes the general public as well. We have the responsibility to report the news whether the public likes it or not, which is why I will choose to publish the name of a local mass shooter, if a shooting were to ever occur in my local area. It’s not about giving them the limelight they’re seeking – it’s about reporting the news in a responsible way.
Reach Ray Still at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @rayscottstill.