Mass murder: is the media to blame?

We can’t make these events into history. Journalism is the first draft of history, so that is where we must start. Twenty dead children are of interest to everyone. Whether they are most important or not, can be debated (and depends, largely, on where they are from. I record here, despite the perhaps now-clichéd nature of the comment, 20 dead white kids are worth more than 20 dead black kids, and you won’t even hear about them if they’re actually from Africa. There were a number of outraged remarks to the tune of “What about Sudan?” And it could be replaced with so many places). But, Roger Ebert said, reflecting on an interview he did after the Columbine shooting that never made it into the world:

“When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. […] The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

He, along with English media critic, Charlie Brooker (who had did a show about media coverage of mass shootings) talk about the fact that the ’round the clock media coverage of mass shootings make the perpetrators into anti-heroes. It makes the shooter the focus of the story, rather than the victims. (I don’t doubt that our natural outrage and confusion add to this desire to focus on the people who do these things; we want to understand the incomprehensible.) But here is a comment by, as Mr. Brooker introduces him in the video, a forensic psychologist on media coverage of mass shootings:

“I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media: if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders don’t start the story with sirens blaring [news clip of a story starting with sirens blaring], don’t have photographs of the killer [news clip with a massive photograph of the killer behind the news anchor], don’t make this 24/7 coverage [montage of 24/7 coverage of the story], do everything you cannot make the body count the lead story [news clip focusing on the body count], not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero [news clip with the story’s focus on the killer], do localize this story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market, because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder we expect to see one or two more within a week.”

For example, Cranston East (one of the two high schools in Cranston) and East Providence High School both had gun threats this week. This psychologists view fits with another commentary I read following the incident which commented on the effects of privilege and race in motivating people to take their feelings out on the public. Hugo Schwyzer commented on why most mass murders are white and usually of good economic standing:

“Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you. If you are […] an American-born, college-educated white man from a prosperous family, you don’t have a sense that any place worth being is off-limits to the likes of you. White men from upper middle-class backgrounds expect to be both welcomed and heard wherever they go. […] White men from prosperous families grow up with the expectation that our voices will be heard. We expect public solutions to our problems. Every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal. This is why, […] it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.”

If part of the problem is that privilege tells people that they have the right to make their problem everyone’s problem, then the mass media coverage is what provides the means of making it not just the community’s problem, but the entire country’s or even all the way around the world. Media saturation, with a focus on the killer, legitimizes the motivation to kill by-standers and innocents.

What the media is facing here is an issue of framing. When I talk about what I or anyone else needs to know about the Sandy Hook shooting is the following: 20 children were shot. It isn’t: a man shot 20 children. The difference is in focus. There are those who use these comments and these idea to demand silence from the media, something which I think is very dangerous. (We need a better way to protest the media than just “turn it off” because that leaves us far too open to being uninformed, which is right below “misinformed” on the list of Terrible Things to Be.)

There is the natural human curiosity complicates the issue. The first question we ask when we hear that something horrifying happened is “How could this happen?” or “Why did this happen?” Our natural desire for information, narrative and, ultimately, understanding leads us to focus on the incomprehensible aspects. As journalists we follow the most natural course of questioning, because we’re asking the questions that people want answers to. But this is one of those instances where that might do more harm than good. Sometimes the incomprehensible is just that: incomprehensible. There is often no narrative for why a person kills another person; yes there is a sequence of events but there is no “Hollywood” narrative, no sequence of events and psychological motivations that lead to the murderous act. By trying to follow those motivations, by making giving them center stage we create an atmosphere were public action is preferable to shooting yourself in the head in your basement.

Maybe we should only ask the question “Why did they do it?” if we can reasonably assume that there was some sort of political reason for such an act. If there is something going on in the killer that is necessary for the public to know, if it was some kind of desperate act of protest and not just a venting of frustrations then maybe we can ask the question “Why did they do this?” But that might just encourage people to kill the people who are giving them a hard time rather than making a sign or organizing a march.

A fun bit of reading about how to cover tragedies such as these including tips on how to interview children: What journalists should know about school shootings and gun (at

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