It's Time for Responsible Media Guidelines for Covering Mass Shootings

media-complicity-in-mass-shootings-b-rAfter watching a shameful display of media "lookie-looism" last Friday, December 4, 2015, as dozens of cameramen and reporters pushed their way into the home of the San Bernardino shooters for a bit of unrestrained ogling and literal pilfering, the very worst offender of the major networks being MSNBC, I started wondering why there wasn't a published set of media guidelines for covering mass shootings that define the limits of what networks will consider resposible coverage. There are standards of journalistic integrity for all sorts of things and since mass shootings are a regular occurrence these days with a seemingly familiar pathology, and in their own right a fully-formed cultural institution, there should be an agreed upon way of covering them to prevent the media from irresposnsible journalism, like the live-broadcast rummage sale and becoming complicit in inspiring the next mass shooting.
 
I certainly am not a journalist or a communications expert nor am I a psychologist or sociologist of any kind. I have a degree in English and that education has taught me a lot about extracting the meaning, subtext, and recurring themes from literature, and those same methods work for art, media and history. It's clear to me these mass shootings are mostly the same, they strike the same notes, even though the motivation is varied. These shooters are not the same type of criminal as serial murders or people motivated by gain, like muggers and burglars; rather, mass shooters seem to be of the same lineage as vandals, tire slashers, and random window breakers: detached from society in such as way as to feel unconstrained by empathy or the understood societal contract which makes unrestrained aggresion in the public square a rarity. Obviously, many other things effect the eventual deadly outcome of their pathology: religion, political leanings, access to weapons, familial influence, mental health, but at the core, like the vandal, tire slasher, and the random window breaker, the aftermath, the news story is a huge part of the aim of a mass shooter: to leave something behind, to effect the world in some small way. That drive is deeper and more ingrained in ourselves than our drive to do and be good. 
 
With no apparent outlet to effect the world in a positive way, a lifetime of isolation and the perception of being aggrieved, for a very small fraction of the population, the fantasy of a murderous, grand exit is the ultimate statement of their existence and settling of scores. (And since this act is a message of sorts about the shooter's dissatisfaction with society, it is "terrorism," reguardless of the specific motivation) This one-way conversation between the shooter and the rest of the world, most being meticulously planned and usually calmly performed, inspired by shootings before it, carried out in a manner that deprives society of the means to respond with due process as most shooters are killed or kill themselves in the process, is caused by so many things that are beyond our ability to effectively mitigate, but the one big requirement, the thing that is in someone else's control (besides controlling the actual guns, which we, frustratingly, are unwilling to do) is the complicity of a media machine to broadcast every detail of the shooter's act because media outlets are driven to attract as many viewers as possible and profit from advertizing drawn in by high ratings, which mass shootings invariably produce. The media can decide to stop being used as a tool in the shooter's plan to broadcast his or her deeds to the world just as municipal governments all over the country know that painting over the vandal's scawlings on a wall as soon as they are left doesn't stop the act, but stops the message from promulgating, stops others from being inspired.
 
It's not good enough to stop watching ourselves, because even though we can look away, the next potential shooter, drawn to the sensation showered upon earlier shooters, will certainly be paying full attention. The media needs to resist its basest impulse to feed a gawking public what it certainly wants, but doesn't' really need: the sick, sad details of the latest gruesome attack, which has been packaged into 24-hour, non-stop coverage with as much inconsequential filler as can be found, like ransacking the shooter's home to hold up family photos up for the camera.
 
I started to imagine what I would suggest as responsible media guidelines and came up with two or three ideas that might be a pretty good start. My very wise wife then suggested, "Why don't you Google it?" So I did and found a great article by Ari N. Shulman from the Wall Street Journal. It was well-researched and contained almost exactly the sorts of things I had brain-stormed but more succinctly stated and addressing more facets of reporting than I had considered. It was published in November 2013, after the LAX shooting, and despite, sadly, being entirely relevant today as it was two years ago, it seems to have stopped being read, shared and commented on just a few days later probably because that particular shotting wasn't the same order of magnitude to inspire a sustained news story like the Sandy Hook or San Bernardino shootings. I reached out to Shulman on Twitter and he suggested that a more recent article by Mark Follman in Mother Jones, October 2015 was more plausible. I read both and honestly, I like Shulman's ideas to effect a more complete blackout of things that might inspire the next shooter. I got the sense that Shulman felt that Follman's more fluid suggestions were more likely to be considered by media outlets. Please read Shulman's article here and Follman's article here.
 
More qualified people with a larger platform than I should take this up. Do we ask media outlets to sign a pledge to opt into these? Direct our pleas to the anchors themselves? (Shulman indicated some well-known anchors like Megyn Kelly and Anderson Cooper are already sensitive to these issues and report accordingly) Do we ask advertisers to demand it or threaten to pull advertizing? Shame and name violations of integrity when the media trips over it's own showlaces? These are a great start, I ask, what's next?
 
Shulman's suggestions via WSJ.com, November 8, 2013:
 
Never publish a shooter's propaganda.
Aside from the act itself, there is no greater aim for the mass killer than to see his own grievances broadcast far and wide. Many shooters directly cite the words of prior killers as inspiration. In 2007, the forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner told "Good Morning America" that the Virginia Tech shooter's self-photos and videotaped ramblings were a "PR tape" that was a "social catastrophe" for NBC News to have aired.
Hide their names and faces. With the possible exception of an at-large shooter, concealing their identities will remove much of the motivation for infamy.
 
Don't report on biography or speculate on motive.
While most shooters have had difficult life events, they were rarely severe, and perpetrators are adept at grossly magnifying injustices they have suffered. Even talking about motive may encourage the perception that these acts can be justified. Police and the media also can contain the contagion of mass shootings by withholding or embargoing details:
 
Minimize specifics and gory details.
Shooters are motivated by infamy for their actions as much as by infamy for themselves. Details of the event also help other troubled minds turn abstract frustrations into concrete fantasies. There should be no play-by-play and no descriptions of the shooter's clothes, words, mannerisms or weaponry.
 
No photos or videos of the event.
Images, like the security camera photos of the armed Columbine shooters, can become iconic and even go viral. Just this year, the FBI foolishly released images of the Navy Yard shooter in action. Finally, journalists and public figures must remove the dark aura of mystery shrouding mass killings and create a new script about them.
 
Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families. 
Reports should shift attention away from the shooters without magnifying the horrified reactions that perpetrators hope to achieve.
 
Decrease the saturation.
Return the smaller shootings to the realm of local coverage and decrease the amount of reporting on the rest. Unsettling as it sounds, treating these acts as more ordinary crimes could actually make them less ordinary.
 
Tell a different story. There is a damping effect on suicide from reports about people who considered it but found help instead. Some enterprising reporters might find similar stories to tell about would-be mass shooters who reconsidered.
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