How the media covers mass shootings has evolved. But is it better?

The first entry in a limited series on how the media covered the Boulder shooting

0

From the moment it happened, the shooting at King Soopers in South Boulder dominated the national news cycle for almost two days. Within minutes of the event, there was a livestream feed on YouTube of the scene, followed by local TV channel vans, reporters and stringers for national news outlets. More came, and then nearly all left — in their wake, a cache of stories with the suspect’s name and image, speculation about the motive, rundowns of how the shooting unfolded and a handful that shared a little about those who were killed.

The impact of this shooting will be felt locally for years, but the national news cycle has already moved on to the trial of the murder of George Floyd, a legislative sex scandal… Joe Biden’s dog. And that’s fine; the national media was never going to follow this story long-term except to provide updates when warranted. But what’s striking, a little over a week after the event, is how mechanical the media was in covering the Boulder shooting.

That is to say, it felt as if there was a playbook media organizations were following, and in the rush to cover the event, there wasn’t a lot of time for thoughtfulness about how covering another mass shooting may inspire the next one, or about how media coverage may affect a community’s or a victim’s loved one’s ability to grieve. Just look at a since deleted (then reposted for transparency) tweet from the Boulder Police Department: “ATTENTION MEDIA: We can’t believe we have to say this AGAIN. Leave grieving family members alone. IF they want to speak with you media liaisons will let you know. Repeatedly calling them & messaging them via social media is despicable. …”

That playbook creates a lot of issues, and it’s unclear how well the Boulder community was served by the information we got and when we got it. These are issues that research and advocacy groups say the media can address for future shootings. So in this three-week series, we’ll look at the history of media coverage of such events and what the research indicates about inspiring copycat massacres; we’ll examine what the public needs to know (and see) during the event through the lens of the Boulder shooting; and we’ll cover what happens in the months after a mass shooting and how the media can create change by not thinking of shootings as acute, isolated tragedies, but as an epidemic requiring ongoing, holistic coverage.

•  •  •  •

A mass shooting occurs, and the media identifies the suspect and victims, and if possible, outlines the suspect’s motives and background, publishes their manifesto and photos, and maybe details how they gained access to a firearm or arms, and the events that led up to the shooting.

A wealth of research indicates such coverage leads to copycat or imitation from other shooters. In fact, there’s research that suggests mass shootings occur frequently within two weeks of each other. Investigators tracking the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings found the killers had studied the Columbine shooting; and further research indicates Columbine spurred dozens of copycat attempts.

The media is not responsible for these subsequent attempts (and shootings), but it does play a role, by providing idealization of the killers and a blueprint for how to do it. This is called the media contagion effect, and it pertains to suicide as well.

DanielJohn/Shutterstock

Research from James Meindl and Jonathan Ivy details just how the effect inspires copycats. Images published by the media displaying shooters aiming guns, or completing acts of violence, project an air of danger and violence. Detailed accounts of the shooter create commonalities between them and those thinking of committing violence that otherwise wouldn’t have been recognized. Repeated accounts of the violence or body counts provide accolades to the shooter. And play-by-play recounts of the event provide feedback on the killer’s performance. 

So pernicious is the media contagion effect that law enforcement groups, including the FBI, have launched the Don’t Name Them campaign, which urges the media not to identify suspects by name after they’re captured, not to publish manifestos, not to publish photos of killers and, generally, not to give space or airtime to killers.

“We suggest that the media cry to cling to ‘the public’s right to know’ covers up a greedier agenda to keep eyeballs glued to screens, since they know that frightening homicides are their No. 1 ratings and advertising boosters,” said Western New Mexico University researcher Jennifer B. Johnston at a recent American Psychological Association convention. She added we could see a one-third reduction in mass shootings in one to two years with efforts to curb the contagion effect.

How’s that going with the Boulder event? A Google search for the killer’s name brings up 2.6 million results; CNN has a long story online titled “Here’s what we know about the Boulder, Colorado, mass shooting suspect,” with the killer’s name and image up top. There are plenty more like it.

But media coverage of mass shootings has changed over the years, says Elizabeth Skewes, chair of the University of Colorado Journalism Department, who is currently researching media coverage of mass shootings. That research goes back to the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas.

“If you go back and take a look at that coverage, there was much more focus on the events and on the shooter … and his backstory and what we knew about him,” Skewes says. “We knew he had been a Boy Scout troop leader and in the military. A lot of focus was on what drove what he did, but also who he was and why he did it. Victims were largely relegated to being their name, their age and, before HIIPA, their condition — critical, stable. There wasn’t much coverage of victims, and no coverage at all of the secondary trauma to people who may have witnessed but not been shot, or to the community.”

Columbine was an informal turning point, Skewes says. Indeed, the enormity of that loss, the age of those killed, and the setting of it opened many eyes around the country to what would become a burgeoning epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence. Media, bolstered by increasing viewership of 24-hour cable news networks, responded in kind by, if not eliminating the killers from the conversation (which it certainly didn’t), producing stories about the victims, the community and the issues that led to that event.

Skewes says media members, then, started to think about their role in covering these events, and started asking questions about what images they should use, how they should frame stories and what stories they should follow. The impulse was to mitigate what would eventually be known as the media contagion effect.

Still, Skewes thinks it’s a “little too simplistic” to say that the effect alone drives killers. 

“That may be a factor but I think there’s so much else for people who even contemplate going into a school or store or theater or renting a room and mowing down people at a concert,” she says. “There’s so much more going into it that it’s more than people wanting to be known.”

Of course there is. But research indicates it’s at least a factor. And if the history of media’s coverage of mass shootings can teach us anything, it’s that time is always helpful. Skewes says she’s seen more coverage of the killer himself in the Boulder shooting than in previous mass shootings, and that although his backstory may be useful to a greater conversation, Skewes might advise media organizations to “hold off on that story until later.”

The story will still be there, and it might be better for the wait.

“When we talk about trauma and trauma reporting, if you wait a month, if you wait six months — when somebody has had time to assess what’s happened more and make whatever sense they might be able to make out of this senseless act — you sit down and talk to somebody, it’s still a compelling story. You don’t lose anything by waiting,” she says.

Meindl and Ivy also have some suggestions for improving media coverage to limit imitation from others: portraying the shooter as shameful or in a negative light; avoid in-depth descriptions of rationale and motive; reduce the amount of time spent covering mass shootings; and reduce the number of live events during coverage of a mass shooting, which could make the event seem more exciting.

In the Boulder shooting, community members also had access to a livestream from someone on the scene at the event — something unique to this tragedy. National and local news outlets used the livestream in their packages and stories, endorsing the controversial feed, which showed people lying on the ground, without context or confirmation of their health status. 

It brings up a bigger question of what people need to know during an event like this: Do we need to see mass shootings happen in real-time? Do we need to hear from people who just survived the shooting, and family members, immediately? We’ll address that next week.  

Previous articleLetters: We are Boulder strong! and more
Next articleThe far right is trying to use the Boulder shooting for its own agenda. Let’s not let it.