The San Bernardino killings occurred on December 9th, just 9 weeks after the Oregon student shootings. Will I be surprised if another mass shooting erupts between my writing this article and its publication? Not at all. For mass shootings have now become part of the American landscape.
We feel not only horrified but helpless too. What can we do to prevent these kinds of tragedies? We keep calling for better mental health services and, at least, a modicum of gun control. Such actions would help. But they are political issues that won’t change overnight. They require altering attitudes, spending mucho money and creating nationwide systems to implement the changes.
So, is there anything that can be done right now to help prevent, or, at least, lower the frequency of, mass shootings?
Yes, there is. And the answer is solidly backed by psychological research. We need to demand that the media report these types of shootings in a non-sensational way. When they don’t, they make the shooter a media star. This is what many of these disturbed minds want.
Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the shooting at Roseburg, Oregon. When Sheriff John Hanlin announced the details of the shooting, he said “I will not name the shooter… I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”
It wasn’t long, however, before a CNN anchor took a different approach, bragging, “We do know his name and we are reporting it. His name is (xxxx)… He listed himself as (xxxx blog name). In his blog, he wrote, ‘When they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are… Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.'”
The Oregon shooter was right about being in the limelight. The names of the killers of JFK, RFK, and Lennon now live in infamy. By committing a heinous act, they raised their status from “nobody” to “somebody.” Recent killings have gravitated from assassinating high-level people to committing mass murder. Fashion is fickle… even when it’s deciding your style of murder.
These new killings are generally perpetrated by a person who is alienated, angry, and feels like a “nobody.” What does he do with those powerful feelings? He sits on them – for a period of time. Then, he takes action. The form of the action is shaped more by what’s outside of him then what’s inside. That is, he decides what action to take by copy-catting others. As he watches the media sensationalize shootings, he discovers his path to fame. Simply pull the trigger and be “somebody.”
So what should the media do? Stop reporting these shootings? Of course not. The media needs to do its job. It needs to cover the news but it doesn’t need to sensationalize the event. News media can practice, as we all must, restraint.
But these are sensational stories. What’s the press doing wrong?
They are hyping the story, not reporting it. What’s the difference? Let me paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who when describing his threshold test for pornography said, “I know it when I see it.”
Hyped reporting is when the story is repeated ad nauseum, spiced up with interviews from grieving relatives, shocked bystanders, even children on site.
Hyped reporting is when dramatic footage is shown over and over again, along with grisly photos and any other tidbits of information that stir our emotions.
Hyped reporting is when the goal is to hook the audience by revving up their emotions so that the buzz does not quickly die down.
But aren’t we, the listener, to blame too? After all, we are the end consumer, gobbling up these news stories, pictures and videos like juicy junk food? Of course, we have a role in this. Though we are not creating the hype, we are consuming it. But if we are smart, we will demand that reporting on this epidemic of mass murders be done in a completely different way.
What if the media set a policy of strict blackouts on publicity for these killers? No names, no photos, no identifying information, no interviews with family members, neighbors, teachers etc. Do you think this would diminish the frequency of such attacks? I do. And my opinion is backed by psychological science, which has documented that media coverage is contagious. This is true for mass shootings and for suicides.
If you agree with me, get active. An immediate step you could take is to contact media sources you watch, listen to or read. Ask them to go along with this blackout. Tell them not to wait till the next mass murder. Do it now. Then ask your social media friends to do the same.
Then, an additional step you can take is to contact your legislators. Ask them to create laws which make such blackouts mandatory. Is this squashing freedom of the press? No, it is squashing freedom of the mass murderers. Anybody against that?