Many questions are being tossed around the news media landscape regarding the causes of school shootings. Is it the guns? Violent video games? A lack of morals in society?
The one question members of the news media don’t ask enough is, how much of this is our fault?
As demonstrated in videos released this week that had been made by the Parkland, Florida, school shooter, journalists must be careful lest their breathless, wall-to-wall reporting and dramatization of a tragedy encourage copycat crimes.
A few thoughts …
– Responsible journalists should not give shooters the publicity they seek by publishing their names and likenesses. Otherwise, they’re encouraging people like the Parkland shooter, who in those self-made videos declared, “It’s going to be a big event, and when you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am. You’re all going to die.”
He seems angry, callous and self-absorbed – but not insane. He knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. He would be “the next school shooter of 2018” with a “goal” of “at least 20 people with an AR-15 and a couple of tracer rounds.”
A disturbed student who feels rejected and unimportant should not become famous by killing a bunch of people. Instead, he should be as anonymous in prison or in death as he was before. Journalists often don’t reveal all they know in service to the public good. As part of that tradition, it should become an industry standard to withhold names and blur faces of school shooters.
– Responsible journalists should report the news, and must get it right.
It’s the job of journalists to inform the public and policymakers about important events. They cannot ignore a student killing 17 people, as the one in Parkland did.
The question isn’t whether to tell the story, but how to. A shooter’s motivations, background, mental state and choice of weapon are important information. His name and what he looks like in most cases aren’t.
Whatever news organizations decide about the details, they must get their facts straight. If there is a school shooting that served as a template for later ones, it was the one at Columbine High School. The initial story was that the killers were members of a “trench coat mafia” taking revenge on the jocks who’d mistreated them. No doubt, some young victims of bullying identified with the killers and maybe even secretly approved of what they did. However, that narrative was wrong. The shooters weren’t bullied victims. They were just murderers who wanted to be famous. But once a false narrative becomes entrenched in popular culture, it’s hard for the truth to overcome it.
– Responsible journalists should include context, including the fact that school shootings are rare. According to James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, there are 55 million schoolchildren, and over the past 25 years an average of about 10 per year have been killed by gunfire at school. That’s less than drown in pools or die in bicycle accidents. The article describing the research on the university’s website was written before the recent shooting of 10 people in Santa Fe, Texas, which would change the numbers a little, but not much.
School shootings are traumatic for the entire nation. One is too many. But the whole story – and that’s what responsible journalists are supposed to tell – is that schools generally are safe places for young people. That information needs to be part of the discussion.
One last point. This column refers to “responsible journalists,” which some of you may think is an oxymoron. Actually, there are more of them than you probably think.
Regardless, there’s only so much that responsible journalists can accomplish. There will always be irresponsible ones, and besides, information can be shared in many other ways. Even if members of “the media,” whatever that is, withhold the names and likenesses of shooters, you’ll probably still be able to find them online. And as for making sure only good information is shared, well, as Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710 three centuries before Twitter and Facebook, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
The goal then, is to reduce harm – to make school shooters a lot less famous while still reporting the story, getting it right, and including context. It’s the responsible thing to do.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.