Our view: Ethical approach to mass shootings
Studies show media coverage of mass shootings in the United States could be contributing to an increase in these incidents
Journalists and the media industry as a whole need to consider adopting a set of voluntary reporting guidelines for mass shooting coverage
On Oct. 1, Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, was the site of the United States’ latest mass shooting. The tragedy ended in the deaths of 10 souls — the crime perpetrated by another young male, who apparently was influenced, in part, by the gunman who killed a television journalist and cameraman in Roanoke, Virginia, in August.
In its aftermath, news organizations covered the tragedy in different ways. Some chose to publish prominently photos of the killer, while others printed only photos of the victims.
In a news conference following the shooting, Douglas County (Oregon) Sheriff John Hanlin refused to utter the name of the shooter, and his silence amplified the debate over how mass shootings should be reported and if the publicity these killers receive actually contributes to repeated instances of similar acts of violence.
We don’t agree with Hanlin’s decision not to name the shooter, because we think information is public by law, but what the press does with that information is another issue entirely. How the media cover mass shootings is a debate every news staff around the country should be having, and we think it’s time the media industry, as a whole, considers addressing the subject as a matter of media ethics.
The Steamboat Today, like most newspapers, has a policy that limits reporting of suicides, and the reasoning behind those reporting decisions lies in the fear of copycat suicides or “copycat contagion.” The newspaper reports on individual suicides only if they involve a public figure or take place in a public setting.
The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Mental Health have endorsed guidelines for reporting on suicide, noting more than 50 research studies worldwide found certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. Some of the recommendations include reporting on suicide as a public health issue, including information on the warning signs of suicide, reporting on the suicide without sensationalizing it and avoiding the publication of details contained in a suicide note.
Now, most news organizations have voluntarily decided to report suicides carefully or not report on them at all, for the same reason we think the media industry, including this paper, should begin re-evaluating how we cover mass shootings.
A research study at Arizona State University, released in July, used a mathematical contagion model to look at mass killings that involved the deaths of at least four people and received national media attention. The analysis of data showed evidence of an unusual bunching of these events, which Sherry Towers, the study’s lead author, said is a hallmark of contagions. According to the ASU study, 30 percent of mass killings and 22 percent of school shootings appeared to have been inspired by previous events.
As the rate of mass public shootings in the U.S. increases, more research studies are being conducted, and violence prevention experts are finding out many of the shooters are using previous shootings as a blueprint for their own “public event.” Law enforcement agencies and healthcare professionals are now beginning to call on the media to downplay the attention these shootings receive in order to minimize the chance of more copycat killings.
When large numbers of people die violently, it is undeniably a news event. Journalists must report the facts of these shootings, and there is strong public interest in uncovering details about the shooting itself and the person who committed the horrific crime. We think there is a responsible way to provide this information without glorifying the killer, and we’d like to see a set of standards established by the news media industry, as a whole, that news outlets could voluntarily follow.
Instead of reposting lengthy manifestos from the shooters and publishing photos of the perpetrators mugging for the camera with semi-automatic weapons in their hands, we’d rather see journalists focus on digging deeper into the societal issues that may be contributing to these shootings. We also think it’s important to report on the lives of the victims over and above the life of the shooter.
In an essay published in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 8, Ari N. Shulman, executive editor of the New Atlantic: A Journal of Technology and Society, suggested a few practices he thinks could discourage mass shootings by depriving the killer of “an audience.” Some of his recommendations include: never publish a shooter’s propaganda; don’t speculate on motive; minimize specifics and gory details; don’t publish photos or videos of the event; talk about the victims but minimize photos of grieving families.
An Oct. 6 article in Mother Jones titled “How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters” details data compiled by the news publication about mass shootings in the U.S. looking at what Mother Jones describes as “Columbine copycats.” The article ends with another series of recommendations for newsrooms covering mass shootings, including such guidelines as using dispassionate language when reporting on the shooter, minimizing use of the perpetrator’s name and keeping the shooter’s name out of headlines.
Both sets of recommendations could serve as a starting point for discussion and reflection among journalists, and we think it is the responsibility of newspapers like ours to search for that delicate balance between reporting the news the public deserves to know in a responsible and complete manner, while avoiding the reporting of details that could serve to glorify the killer and encourage copycat behavior.
With the Umpqua shooting marking the 72nd incident of mass killing in the United States since 1982, we think it’s time for the media industry to consider voluntary restrictions on reporting of mass shootings in a concerted effort to minimize harm.
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