Editorial: Media responsibility in covering mass violence

Editorial: Media responsibility in covering mass violence

METRO photo

Whether or not school districts should hire armed guards is complex, requiring thoughtful consideration from parents, students, community members, educators, school administrators and elected officials.

But as we work through the intricacies of this sensitive and often contentious issue, a related matter is worthy of our attention: How can we appropriately cover mass shootings when these tragic events arise?

The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are injured or killed. Unfortunately, mass shootings are commonplace in this country. Already in 2023, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year. As a nation, we have failed to address this critical policy concern. 

When one of these all-too-familiar violent events occurs, the press often too hastily reports on it. Helicopters circle above the crime scene as field reporters rush to the periphery, searching for immediate information. 

A tragedy soon becomes a spectacle. Within days — sometimes just hours — the suspect’s name is revealed to the public. Then the shooter’s image is flashed incessantly on every newsreel and in every major newspaper in America. As the media goes to work uncovering the personal details of the shooter’s life, a depraved human being is made into a national celebrity.

And this phenomenon is not unique to the press. Hollywood capitalizes on violence; the more graphic a film’s depictions, the more revenue it will generate. Violence sells in this country, whether in motion pictures, music, video games, digital media or newsprint. And the ubiquity of these images within American popular culture has the natural effect of normalizing violent behavior nationwide.

Here at TBR News Media, we reject this dynamic entirely. Mass violence in America should not be accepted as mainstream nor should it be sensationalized or embellished. With a medium that enables us to disperse information widely both in print and on the web, we are responsible for using our platform appropriately.

Research on mass shooters indicates they are often motivated by perceived isolation or social rejection. Some commit an atrocity to achieve a mark on the world, since even playing the villain can be preferable to obscurity.

As journalists, we must deny violent offenders precisely the attention and fame they so crave. We legitimize acts of violence when we publish names or run headshots of mass shooters. By lending our platform to the least deserving, we encourage copycat offenders.

It is time that we, the members of the press and the distributors of information, end the dramatization and glorification of mass violence in America. It is time to substitute sensationalism with rigid, objective reporting when violence inevitably ensues.

This same standard applies to digital media. In this century, so much of the information available to us is circulated online. For this reason, Big Tech has a similar obligation to monitor its content and halt the spread of personal details regarding mass shooters.

While restraining our coverage is necessary, mass violence deserves our close attention. Still, we must focus on the issues: Should we hire armed guards in and around schools? How do we keep guns out of the hands of potentially violent offenders? How can we expand access to mental health services, so fewer people resort to mass violence? And more.

The focus should be policy driven and victim centric. We should create awareness of the problem while working to identify solutions. But we must not say their names or run their headshots.

By covering shootings appropriately, we can do our part to curb the spread of mass violence. By applying these methods consistently, journalists can work to change the culture, save lives and make a positive difference for the nation and humanity.