Do We Need To Change How We Report Mass Shootings?

Does the media report mass shootings* and violent crimes responsibly?

On October 1st, just after 10 pm, Stephan Paddock opened fire from a hotel room at 22 000 concertgoers. Less than 2 hours later, 58 people had been killed and nearly 500 were injured. This event was quickly labelled the worst U.S mass shooting in modern history. On June 12th, 2016, Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring 58.

Two separate events and in both cases (and in many others), from the minute the shooting began, media outlets were quick to publish any and all information regarding the shooter as soon it came to light. Their lives, their personalities, their motives and their family and friends were all scrutinized as everyone tried to make sense of the tragedy. But does such media scrutiny unintentionally exacerbate the situation?

A movement ‘No Notoriety’ has challenged the media to change how they report on such crimes:

The quest for notoriety and infamy is a well known motivating factor in rampage mass killings and violent copycat crimes. In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we CHALLENGE THE MEDIA – calling for RESPONSIBLE MEDIA COVERAGE FOR THE SAKE OF PUBLIC SAFETY when reporting on individuals who commit or attempt acts of rampage mass violence thereby depriving violent like minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave.”

So, is such a claim that the media spotlight is one of the driving forces behind these tragedies true? Jennifer Johnson, a researcher at Western New Mexico University, in an interview with The World Today, stated that there was a “strong suspicion” that the way media reports on these incidents is why there has been such an increase. “The reason is that, when we look at the other major causal factors involved in mass shootings… the only thing that has really changed in the last 15 years – and really about 20 years – is media coverage of the events.”

This year alone, in the US, there have been 279 reported mass shootings. Not all of these garner the same international attention as Orlando and Vegas but often the same scrutiny of the perpetrator and the minimal news time for victims is the same across the board.

It should be noted that the media, in their approach, are attempting to ensure that citizens are given all the facts and also ensuring that they keep up with a constant 24/7 news cycle, but perhaps it is time guidelines and rules were put in place. The initial reaction to this is to argue that citizens want to know what happened and why, but if we think about it do we need to? Yes, the role of the media is to be democracy’s fourth estate, the watchdog that informs the citizens, but the media can still fulfil their role while simultaneously assisting law enforcement in protecting their public—and shouldn’t this also be a goal?

No Notoriety outlines four main policies:

  1. To publish the name or likeness of the assailants after initial identification only when necessary to aid law enforcement.
  2. Ban manifestos and the like of the assailant but rather focus on the victims and the importance of their lives.
  3. Keeping in mind when reporting that infamy could serve as a motivation for other individuals.
  4. Agree to promote data and analysis from experts in mental health, public safety, and other relevant professions as another way to help prevent further mass murders. Accept that using the individual’s name and photos is actually irrelevant to the media coverage apart from when the assailant is still at large.

These policies are not asking the media to eliminate all information but rather change the angle. By reducing the excessive amount of reference to a perpetrator and refusing to assign infamous accolades, such as “the worst mass shooting in US modern history,” the media can ensure that the public is informed, that the victims and the heroes of the hour, like those in law enforcement, are given their proper recognition all while ensuring that their reports of these tragedies do not encourage similar events.

Such steps would not be easy, it would require all journalists to shift their perspective on what is actually crucial to reports of a mass shooting, and not just in the US, but internationally. With all the evidence, however, pointing to irresponsible reporting being a reason behind these tragedies it is a necessary change.

* As defined by the FBI, a mass shooting entails four or more individuals (not including the shooter) being shot and/or killed in a single incident, at the same general time and location.

Annemarie Lewis