We’ve seen the cycle repeated over and over again: a twisted individual, couple, or small group engages in a depraved attack on unarmed innocents. The media are outraged, astounded, shocked – shocked, I say. Quickly they delve into the identity and background of the murderer(s), naming them, showing their pictures, quoting their Facebook pages, talking to their neighbors, families, friends, teachers and anyone else who can “shed some light” on who the murderer or murderers were and why they might have done such a terrible thing. The media are so anxious to share this information, to be first in the relentless 24-hour news cycle, that they have often released incorrect information, naming the wrong person or linking to the wrong Facebook account or other information. They follow the story for weeks, making the vile killer(s) household names and guaranteeing that they will go down in history for their atrocious actions.
A few days, weeks, or months later, some other deranged soul or souls launch a similar attack, like competitors in a video game, trying to “rack up a higher score” with a more repulsive and shocking atrocity – shooting for a higher “body count” – and once again the media play right along, naming the latest criminal, recounting the horror and delving into the minutia of the deviant’s life.
Suicide experts have long understood that suicides, particularly teen suicides, are directly influenced by the level of media attention they receive. The less information the media puts out about a suicide, the less likely it is that other troubled people will attempt to end their own lives. Conversely, the more media attention a suicide receives, the more likely others are to follow suit.
After years of education and criticism of the media for contributing to these trends, media outlets finally began reporting on suicides much more carefully. They quit naming the deceased and doing emotional tribute pieces about the tragedy of a life cut short and the great potential lost. As a result, suicide epidemics have become much less common, and many lives have been saved.
It is time for the media to admit its own culpability in stimulating mass murderers. It is well past time for them to admit their role in fueling the fire and to change the way they report on mass murderers and rampage killers. The link between media reporting on mass murders and the probability of copycat murders has been known for years. My father, the late Neal Knox, pointed out the link almost 20 years ago and called on the media to make changes back then, but they didn’t listen – or simply refused to act – and the trend of atrocity, media frenzy and multiple follow-up atrocities has not only continued, it has escalated. Now, with the advent of 24-hour cable news programs and the power of New Media to spread and repeat stories at an amazing level of saturation, mass killers not only become infamous, they become celebrities – and others very quickly try to achieve that same celebrity status.
I recall an editorial from respected reporter and news anchor Howard K. Smith on the TV news magazine “60 Minutes” back in the early 1970s. This was during a time of frequent terrorist attacks around the world, and Mr. Smith was taking exception to the common practice of news anchors and reporters using the term “taking credit” when reporting on these attacks. Smith contended that “credit” was something to be earned for a job well done, not something to be assigned for an atrocity. He suggested that rather than reporting that this group or that group was “taking credit” for a bombing, hijacking, or assassination that the better term would be “taking responsibility.” From the moment Smith’s editorial aired, reporters around the nation removed the word “credit” from their lexicon when talking about terrorist attacks, replacing it with the words “responsibility” or “blame.” That standard remains in place today and is a staple of journalism classes and organizational style guides.
That simple semantic change made an impact on people’s perceptions of terrorism and terrorist groups and helped to bring an end to that era’s terrorism crisis.
The current challenge is much greater, both in terms of benefits for making a sweeping change and the difficulty of convincing a wide array of competing media to change the way they report on major stories. Those who become early adopters of a new standard could be putting themselves at a significant disadvantage to their competitors, but they could also reap significant rewards from grateful audiences, especially once audiences understand why they are doing what they’re doing.
What I propose is that when atrocities like what happened in Newtown and Aurora occur, news organizations make it a policy never to name the murderer(s), never show their picture and never publish or repeat any crazy “manifesto” or suicide letter. I’m not suggesting that reporters completely ignore the back story of who committed the crime and why, but that they make it a point not to create a cult figure in the process. They should just report on the tragedy and only refer to the perpetrator(s) in unflattering and derogatory terms – calling the killer(s) disturbed, demented, twisted, sick, perverse, psychotic and cowardly, rather than using their names or showing their faces.
Guidelines for reporting on suicide, such as those put out by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention could easily be adapted to coverage of mass killings. At first the public’s morbid curiosity may sell some advertising for less responsible media outlets, but eventually the general public will come to understand that any recognition is seen as reward and that it’s just common sense not to make dark celebrities out of those who commit unspeakable atrocities.
I know of several bloggers and online reporters who have maintained this policy for years. Who will be the first major media personality or organization to take the pledge? How about it Fox News, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS? What about you, New York Times? Have you thought lately about what news really is fit to print? Hey, Gannett! Can your papers figure out how to cover a horrible story without glamorizing it? Which of you is ready to step up, take some responsibility and lead the way toward a reduction in the number of rampage killings in the U.S.?
Readers might consider issuing your own challenge to your favorite reporters and news outlets.