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Opinion: Don’t give mass shooters the fame they crave

Stop giving them the fame they kill for.

This is a call to media outlets across the United States to stop reporting shooters’ names and biographical facts about gunmen who carry out mass shootings. What good does it serve?

Photo illustration by Olivia Belcher/Kokopelli

The answer is absolutely none and here is why.

When mass shootings occur, the news media are immediately saturated with coverage of who the gunmen are, their names, where they are from, what their home lives are like, what their religious beliefs are, and so on and so on. These are often the first questions the media are concerned with answering.

None of that information should matter. All that should matter is the fact that someone intentionally killed innocent people and whether anyone has been taken into custody. That should be the extent of the coverage concerning the gunmen who commit these crimes.

The rest of the coverage should be focused on who the victims are and what kind of lives they lived because these are the stories that are worth the time, energy and money of news outlets.

That’s just it, though. Many newspapers and news broadcast stations are struggling financially, so their judgment on what they cover is skewed toward what stories will generate the most viewership, not what stories are most newsworthy.

At a recent forum hosted by KRWG-TV, El Paso reporters discussed how they deal with covering traumatic news stories including how they dealt with the El Paso shooting. The reporters provided insight into how news outlets handle who covers what.

“Many newspapers and news broadcast stations are struggling financially, so their judgment on what they cover is skewed toward what stories will generate the most viewership, not what stories are most newsworthy.”

Something that stood out was a story Lauren Villagran, a reporter for the El Paso Times, shared about her reporting on the El Paso shooting. Villagran is a single mom and was at home when the shooting occurred. Since she couldn’t leave to go report on-site, as soon as the name of the shooter was released she was given the task of finding out every detail of his life including reading his manifesto and screenshotting all of his social media pages. That was her entire focus for the first hours following the massacre.

Villagran indicated these tasks were uniquely difficult. “And that was unexpectedly its own strange trauma — having to go into the mind of this person who posted this hateful diatribe online and read about his alleged motives in coming to our community to kill people of color. I spent the next hours reading and re-reading,” Villagran said.

“From the journalistic tips perspective, yes, you have to quiet your heart in order to get the facts and keep your wits about you to do things like take screenshots of all his social media accounts before they were taken down. For those things you need to keep your brain on. But there were some moments when you step back and you’re in his words and it just destroys you,” Villagran added.

This should not have been the first thing that was assigned to Villagran. The El Paso Times’ focus should have been on finding out the correct number of victims and interviewing survivors in the parking lots surrounding the Walmart where the shooting took place instead of reporting on who the shooter was and what his motives were.

Victoria Balderrama, a journalism student at NMSU who happened to be at Cielo Vista mall at the time of the El Paso shooting, was struck by reporters’ focus on the shooter. “I think [reporters] were very focused on who this person was, who the shooter was, where is he from, you know, what high school did he go to and I think they could have talked to the people that were outside … waiting in the parking lot outside of the mall. They didn’t know what was going on. They had their own opinions. I think getting perspective from the people is something that they missed. They included [this] later on, but in that moment I think it was more important to hear from the people of El Paso,” Balderrama said.

Experts from the The Associated Press, such as John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president and editor-at-large for standards, have tried to restrict the mention of a perpetrator’s name to the minimum needed to properly inform the public, while avoiding descriptions that might serve a criminal’s desire for publicity or self-glorification.

James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied mass shootings, says that naming shooters is not the problem, but believes that it’s the over-the-top coverage that includes irrelevant details about the killers, such as their writings and their backgrounds, that “unnecessarily humanizes them.”

More importantly, studies show extensive coverage of the motives and thinking behind mass shootings has the possibility of encouraging others who identify with the shooters to follow in their footsteps.

Many experts are now researching the contagious nature of these mass shootings and how excessive media coverage of the shooters can drive the contagion. The “contagion effect” refers to the virus-like harm that such excessive coverage can inflict on the public by inciting so-called “copycat” shootings.

One study published last year by researchers in Australia and the U.S. suggests excessive news coverage of a mass shooting can “cause approximately three mass shootings in the following week, which would explain 55 percent of all mass shootings.”

For the average person, the interest in knowing about suspects of mass shootings is driven by their subconscious desire to know what a gunman’s motive was in order to have an answer to justify why the shooting took place. This is what they want to know, which is why media outlets report it.

In reality, knowing the motive isn’t going to reverse or erase what happened and it isn’t going to prevent the next one from happening, so why is it so important to know? There isn’t any excuse good enough to justify killing innocent people in cold blood, therefore it shouldn’t be the first thing the media are focused on no matter how bad people want to know.

Moreover, focusing too much media attention on the shooters can actually lead to more shootings and more violence.

It all comes down to de-sensationalizing such high-profile stories and stopping to think “who is being affected by this,” not “who caused this.”

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to New Mexico State University, the NMSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Kokopelli, or any other organization, committee, group or individual. 

One Comment

  1. Julie Alvarado

    Very relavant topic. Well written

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