Valentine’s Day this year was, for most Americans, a day of stereotypical chocolate and flowers. For others, it was a day they saw another mass shooting on the news, tuned in for a few minutes, then went home to dinner without really thinking much of it. For some, their lives were changed forever, as the children they sent to school in the morning with heart-shaped balloons and valentines will never return home again.
This type of situation has become so common it’s almost jarring. Concerts, churches, schools—nothing feels safe anymore. We barely have time to recover from one tragedy when another is thrust to the forefront of national news, each one receiving endless hot takes and ideas. We should reject this entire notion and, quite simply, stop nationally reporting mass shootings of this nature.
Yes, that’s right. Stop letting these mass tragedies dominate the news cycle for entire weeks. Stop leveraging grief to try and force Congress’s collective hand. Stop bickering, virtue-signaling, and trying to figure out conspiracy theories and details.
“We have to honor the victims,” you say. I could not agree more. We have to honor the victims by not shoving a camera in their faces or haranguing grieving parents to talk to reporters.
These Shooters Do It For Fame. Don’t Give It To Them
Of course, there is always going to be some level of invasion of privacy in journalism. A reporter barging into an emotional situation is often important to further public knowledge about an occurrence. But limiting reporting of mass shootings—at the very least ones involving children—to local news channels could be the primary way in which we cut down on their frequency.
Hear me out. I watched all major cable news channels for hours both the days of and after the Valentine’s shooting. Approximately 60 percent of that time has been on the shooter’s face. His name, his picture, footage of him getting arrested, videos of him at the jail, news of his court arraignment—I could go on. When his face isn’t plastered on the screen, coverage loops between horrific video from children’s cellphones and pundits’ hot takes on the Second Amendment.
CNN reported in November that 2017 saw almost five mass shootings per week. The five deadliest mass shootings in the United States occurred over the past 10 years. There are more mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.
While numbers for the news cycle are far harder to quantify, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik discussed the rise of the 24-hour news cycle during a 2005, attributing constant news coverage to a rise in journalistic interest. “When crisis happens, they [cable news services] have the knowledge and ability to go places and to have voices of the place, not simply somebody in London narrating something that they had feed from some remote freelancer of a freelancer. And I think that’s valuable. They’ve kind of served as a broadcast wire service in that way,” Folkenflik said. “In addition, on the other hand, you see newspapers and networks covering things that they might not have done.”
Media and psychological research corroborates this view. For example, research presented to the American Psychological Association in 2016 found a correlation between media contagion and an increase in mass shootings: “This quest for fame among mass shooters skyrocketed since the mid-1990s ‘in correspondence to the emergence of widespread 24-hour news coverage on cable news programs, and the rise of the internet during the same period.’”
The study authors noted that the typical psychological profile of a mass murderer includes “pathological narcissism” that obsessively seeks public attention. They recommended media stop weaponizing mass shootings for clicks and political pressure as they did in response to high-profile celebrity suicides in the 1990s. The country subsequently saw a decline in those kinds of tragedies.
The Media Has an Ethical Duty to Stop Enabling Murder
As outlets have become more and more focused on reporting constantly, news, all news, is emblazoned on every platform. We can and should not try to blame the 24-hour news cycle for all mass shootings, but it must be noted that ceaseless publicity of a perpetrator’s visage is not solving any problems.
This naturally raises important ethical questions. Namely, does the news industry mandate coverage of events that devastate small communities? Or can these occurrences be limited to the cities in which they occur, to avoid making the perpetrator an overnight celebrity?
We can debate the pros and cons of gun control until we are blue in the face, but until we change our perspective, we will not prevent these tragedies. Step into the mind of a troubled teenager who feels outcast, unseen, forgotten. When he sees the chance for him to suddenly be elevated to a national platform, he may just take that opportunity. After all, hate views are still views.
As more details emerge about the Parkland shooting, the narrative will soon change. People will begin posting photos of the victims themselves, their cheerful smiles a reminder that life is frail, fleeting, and beyond our control.
“We are honoring the victims and their families! We are preserving their memories!” we will say as we retweet away. Inevitably, the news cameras will be put away, the crowds will thin, and even our virtuous tweets will fade away in the swirling vortex of the news.
So how, exactly have we honored the victims? To leave communities alone, to let families grieve in peace, to not publicize the shooter as some kind of anti-hero is the only way to truly show that we are committed to real change.
The Feeding Frenzy Does No Good for Anyone
I’m a journalist. I know we like to hear ourselves talk. And we convince ourselves that if we don’t publicize stories like this, Congress will never do anything about gun control. There may be a grain of truth in that statement, and we should not avoid doing something just because Congress has thus far been inactive on legislation.
But what good has the vicious news cycle done? What real change has it enacted? What have we done besides grieved, ranted, and moved on, over and over and over again?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t pressure Congress to do something. Lobbyists and concerned citizens should break down the very doors of the Capitol if need be. But mass-distributing pictures of screaming mothers and crying children is not the way to do it, at least not on every major news site. Their grief is too sacred to be weaponized for political purposes. And plastering the image of the shooter on every possible avenue only encourages more evil to surface, as it brings fame and attention.
Ultimately, we know that we can never eradicate sorrow and suffering from this world. But this sentiment does not give us the luxury of not doing anything. Rather, we must take a hard look at both society and ourselves to see how we might change. And, for now, we grieve.