Mass shootings have affected the way some Americans choose to live their day to day lives. Shootings seem to be occurring in our schools, workplaces, and our public places. These acts of senseless violence have affected thousands of lives directly, through the loss of their friends and loved ones, and they have affected countless others indirectly when they have to live their lives in fear of being gunned down by a mentally unstable stranger.
The public agrees that it wants the shootings to stop. However, what the country cannot seem to agree on is how to curb the number of these incidents. Some push for strict gun control laws, others want a better handle on mental health issues, and some simply want higher public security. Frustrations on the matter have only increased as the arguments have become increasingly politicized and polarized. The problem is that a lot of this urgency has been misplaced. There is an easier step in the right direction. We can simply be getting a handle on how the media covers stories on mass shootings.
Using terrorist attacks and mass shootings for higher ratings has been a long enduring practice in mainstream news media outlets as they continue to plaster widespread and extensive coverage on every intimate details about the shooter. This practice brings both fame and false stardom, creating a Jesse James or Al Capone sort of folklore around the shooters themselves (recall the Boston Marathon bomber on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine). With the whole world watching, the media coverage only reinforces the behavior of other potential mass shooters, giving those who feel alienated from society one more reason to pick up a gun and go out with a bang, taking as many people as possible down with them. Not only does this media practice continue to thrust fear and heartache upon the American people, it is also self-perpetuating as it puts these atrocities into the limelight, only causing similar crimes to occur.
We should hold the media accountable for how they present stories like these, and instead of creating more notoriety for the mass shooters, they should focus on the facts and treat these occurrences as they would any other crime. The solution is not to sweep mass shootings under the rug, but the medias oversaturation of these stories has caused much more harm to the American people than good. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to enact proper policy on the media that does not violate the first amendment. However, we should still take creative steps to nudge the media into more responsible behavior. For instance, we could create incentives by boosting certain media outlets (online or television time slots) that have done better about portraying these incidents, or have a neutral and publically observed third party subsidize media outlets that are doing proper news but are suffering in ratings.
The oversaturation of these stories in the media is causing a priming effect that pushes other shooters to go ahead and commit crimes. This means that once potential shooters have seen the infamy and notoriety that other mass shooters gain from their time in the spotlight, they will subconsciously feel like their actions will be validated. This is why it seems like one mass shooting is immediately followed by another. American media outlets need to adopt a practice similar to how the American government generally refuses to pay ransoms to kidnappers or to negotiate with terrorists. Once you give one mass shooter exactly what they want, more will follow in their tracks. If we want to decrease the number of mass shootings, the media needs to rethink how they go about publicizing them.
Alex Summerlin is a student in Joe McGarrity’s Senior Seminar class at the University of Central Arkansas. Joe McGarrity, a professor of economics at UCA and a regular columnist, has vetted the article. You can reach Professor McGarrity at firstname.lastname@example.org.