I was on the phone the other day talking about what happened at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon when reports started coming out about two more shootings, one at Northern Arizona University and a second at Texas Southern University. The sad thing was that I wasn’t shocked. Not even a little bit. I’ve been desensitized to mass shootings and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I can remember watching every news report after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, but when reports of the UCC shooting were released I didn’t even turn on the television. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t just as horrified, but I didn’t want to flip through two dozen channels with nonstop coverage of the same faces of traumatized students, worried families and shocked community members.
“Somehow this has become routine,” President Obama said in his statement about the Umpqua shootings. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.”
And he’s right. Mass shootings used to throw newsrooms into chaos, but now it seems like reporters know exactly how to cover them. Everything is covered exactly the same, from where to be and what to say, to how to act and what to release.
Something that is new, however, is the fear of a “copycat killer.”
In July, researchers presented evidence that, based on a mathematical contagion model usually applied to the spread of diseases, mass killings and school shootings may be “contagious,” according to a Newsweek article titled “Mass Shootings and News Media: A Connection?” This means that similar acts of violence are inspired by recent events.
Lead author Sherry Towers said to Newsweek that what the researchers found was that “in (incidents) that didn’t get a lot of media attention there was no contagion, and in the ones where we did see a lot of media attention, that’s where we saw the contagion.”
The study found that in 30 percent of mass killings and 22 percent of school shootings, there seemed to be some sort of “inspiration,” and a copycat killer would usually strike within 13 days of seeing the event that “inspired” them.
“Not only is this copycat problem far more serious than is generally understood, there are now clear indications that some individuals who plan and carry out these crimes are influenced by sensational news coverage of prior attacks,” Mark Follman, national affairs editor for Mother Jones, said in an Oct. 9 New York Times “Room for Debate” article. “Their desire for notoriety traces from as far back as the 1999 Columbine massacre to the recent shooting of two TV journalists in Virginia.”
So, what can the media start doing differently? Some argue that media outlets should refrain from releasing the identity of shooting suspects altogether, ending the unintentional glorifying of their actions. This isn’t realistic, in my opinion. People will demand to know who is responsible, but that does not mean that media needs to publish video rants filmed by the suspect or graphic photos and posts from their personal social media pages.
“Most of us are disturbed or repulsed by images of a killer posing with a gun or sporting a maniacal grin,” Follman said, “but aspiring copycats see an antihero who’s gone from being a miserable nobody to a world-famous somebody with a few pulls of a trigger.”
Something else that media needs to do is end the race to be the first news outlet to tweet, broadcast or report unconfirmed information. Too often do I see an already traumatized student, still shaking from what has happened, already on television giving an interview.
Reporters want to be the first with the scoop, and in their attempt to accomplish this, they forget that victims and witnesses are just that: victims and witnesses.
“Nothing the news media does will end the scourge of mass shootings … ,” Follman said. “But if there are steps journalists can take to help reduce the frequency of these slaughters — while still reporting aggressively and robustly — we should seriously consider them.”
The media cannot, and should not, be blamed for the actions of unstable killers, but they can be held accountable for being accurate before being first and being empathetic before interviewing. It is important to get information out to the public, but it is more important to be mindful of those tragically and unwillingly involved.