Y! Big Story: How the media should cover mass shootings, and why it can't
The ghastly theatricality of the July 20 shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater guaranteed nonstop media attention, amplified by social media.
What wasn't guaranteed, yet inevitable, would be the dizzy scramble to name the offender, count the bodies, release unconfirmed details, speculate on madness -- and then criticize the reactionary reporting.
Analysts from the Atlantic to Fox News have questioned the journalistic impartiality. The embarrassing gaffes over identifying the correct James Holmes alone proved how the swarm of reporting in a 24-7 environment trumped accuracy.
The July 30 hearing, in which Holmes was charged with 142 counts of murder, was closed to the press. As news organizations prepare to argue at an August 9 hearing to have the judge unseal the case docket, a deeper concern persists: Does sensationalist coverage encourage copycats? In the sworn duty to provide the who, what, where, and when, many journalists will be asking how -- how much publicity should be afforded to a suspected killer in a case that has already become one of the year's most closely followed stories. That leads to another corollary: Can media habits change until Americans challenge their own complicity?
The calculus of crime: infamy
The coverage debate -- conducted in discussion boards, blogs, and media stories -- have ranged from focusing exclusively on victims to advocating a blackout on the suspect's name. Jordan Ghawi, who tweeted that his sister had died at the theater, returned to Twitter to ask that people join the president to refrain from "speaking the shooter's name or posting images." The impulse is to deny the alleged suspect notoriety and discourage "the next would-be spree killer."
There's a history of criminals declaring to have been inspired by violent acts, from Adolf Hitler's genocidal actions to the rampage shooting at Columbine High School. Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at Poynter, points out to Yahoo!, "There's no hard science that suggests the way the media covers an event leads to copycats." The only contagion effect that has been documented by studies is copycat suicide. In such a case, the recommended media guidelines include avoiding a vivid description of the act or attributing the act to a single failure, such as a breakup or a college rejection. Those triggers "may contribute to suicide," McBride says, but the suicide happened because the person was mentally ill, not because he or she failed a test.
Correlation of copycat murders may be harder to come by because such killings -- serial or spree -- are mercifully rare, accounting for less than 1% of all murders. But criminal behavioralists do see infamy as a motive for a certain type of offender. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who studies mass murderers, tells Yahoo! that some angry desperate offenders will review a menu of crimes that achieve their goals. "One of the considerations in that calculus [is], what will achieve the greatest publicity," he explains. A suicidal depressive would consider mass murder and assassination; those who want to survive their crimes contemplate serial murder, arson, product tampering, and bombings.
[Related: Mass murder and mental illness]
Crime assessment expert Richard Walters classifies killers who carry out high-profile crimes among "power aggressives." One of the founders of the Vidocq Society, a nonprofit that solves cold cases and is the subject of the New York Times bestseller "The Murder Room," Walter explains to Yahoo! that the Colorado theater shooter's style of attack -- the gas mask, the costume, the setting, the damage -- was about power control. Unlike anger-excitation or sadistic killers, power-aggressive killers create a "drama bigger and better than what they should have" to compensate for failings in their personal lives, he says. "They kidnap other people's power for their own."
Duty versus sensationalism
The journalist's duty to cover what's happening without restriction is paramount. In a frantic and competitive environment, though, sensationalism can kick in, and these days, the accelerated speed of reporting in the downsized profession can cloud big-picture thinking.