Moving the media forward

A look at how to improve media coverage of mass shootings

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When a gunman killed eight people in Indianapolis on April 15, it marked the 45th mass shooting (four or more casualties) in the U.S. in the previous month, going back to the shooting at an Atlanta day spa on March 16.

Likely, you saw the news of the Indianapolis tragedy and felt sympathy, because now we know first-hand how it feels to lose the illusion of safety we’ve cultivated in our “safe” American commmunities and to see friends and neighbors mourn on national television. Indeed, the way many of us here in Boulder County look at mass shootings in the U.S. changed on March 22.

But did anything change in the last month for the media and how it covers such shootings?

“There’s a routine to breaking news coverage in part because it works, in part because you have a short timeline, you have a deadline,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of Columbia University’s Dart Center, which works to improve coverage of mass shootings.

That’s a problem. It’s a problem that the normalized, formulaic way in which media covers mass shootings in the U.S. garners viewers, readers and clicks; that small newsrooms don’t have the resources to cover mass shootings beyond the immediate event; and that coverage of mass shootings in national media “just starts dropping off,” after three days of an event, according to Jennifer Johnston, a Western New Mexico University researcher with a doctorate in media psychology.

It’s a problem that media organizations profit from mass shootings.

“We have other research that indicates violence sells and murder is major clickbait,” Johnston says. “It works as far as selling newspapers and magazines. I unfortunately think they’re making a profit as opposed to what the research says about contagion.”

(Media contagion, as we’ve discussed in earlier parts of this series, is the term for a documented trend of sensational, all-angles coverage of mass shootings leading to more.)

So how can the media learn lessons from the most recent shootings and improve its coverage?

Shapiro says if the immediate coverage of the shooting is act one, then “there’s a kind of longer act two and three that play out over time in the lives of witnesses and the lives of the community, and that’s a lot harder — it’s not impossible — to craft a news agenda around. The Dart Center exists to get act two on page one. You have to define what’s news and whose story you’re telling in a different way. You bring a new toolkit to bear. It’s a little more challenging. … American TV is really only oriented toward act one.”

Not only is national media (not just TV) focused on covering only the immediate event, but Johnston’s research indicates it’s focused on the shooter. A review of media coverage of the shootings in Las Vegas; Parkland, Florida; and Santa Fe, Texas, found images of the shooter appear 41 times more often than any one of his victims. The New York Times, in particular, printed the names of mass shooters on its front page 4.5 times more than any of the other 602 other newspapers (besides the Washington Post) researchers reviewed. And though, broadly speaking, media organizations have done a better job minimizing photos of shooters, the Times was the only newspaper that displayed images of weapons of the Las Vegas and Parkland shooters in lead story positions.

Instead, Johnston says, the focus of media coverage should be on victims — “Anytime you focus on victims, it builds empathy in most viewers.”

The problem, she posits, is that the emotions involved in reading or viewing stories on victims in shootings are harder for consumers to deal with than anger, which images and stories about the shooter tend to engender.

“If you show the shooter, that viewer can be mad,” she says. “It seems to be an easier emotion to tolerate as a consumer.”

But focusing coverage on the viewers is, ultimately, a harder and more time consuming endeavor, in addition to not being the ratings-driver that coverage of suspects is.

Elizabeth Skewes, chair of the University of Colorado journalism department, outlines the problem thusly: “This is one of those big and complex problems. I think it takes researchers, researchers who are looking into causes and impacts on the community, and journalists staying in touch with them and writing those stories.”

But, “Who has six months to do this, right?”

It’s either local reporters or it’s no one. Shapiro says stories that look into the environment that allowed this to happen — why the shooter was able to get a gun, if there were failures in the mental health system — “are best reported on as local stories.”

Any victim- or system-focused coverage beyond the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting likely won’t contribute to contagion, Johnston says.

“Focus on anything but… Don’t focus on the shooter, don’t go into his name, don’t go into his emails, his background.”
Media should report on laws that enabled this, security issues along the way, prosecutorial items after the fact, mental health issues, heroic efforts during the event that come to light later. Anything but the shooter.

Too, families of the people who were killed might also benefit from sustained local coverage. Shapiro cites a case-in-point wherein after a shooting in Winnenden, Germany, the editor of the local paper decided to run a blacked-out front page with the word “Why” and a small subhead. Shapiro spent some time in the newsroom and gathered why the editor made that choice.

“He didn’t want his paper revictimizing, didn’t want sensationalizing. He ran a black block on the front page. In the weeks following, he [said] he didn’t want interviews with victims’ families because he knew it would be distressing.
“A few weeks later this father of a girl who died came into the Winnenden bureau and yelled at him, ‘Why haven’t you come and talked to me? I want people to know who my daughter was, she was a real person.’ There is a lot of evidence that capturing those stories at the right moment, that bearing witness for families that have lost someone, help frame the narrative in a very valuable way.”

It’s not like the media hasn’t changed the way it covers tragedies before. Johnston says there was widespread acceptance across media organizations for changing the way suicide is covered — not sensationalizing, focusing on family members left behind, relegating stories to the back page — and it coincided with a documented reduction in suicide.

In fact, changing the way we cover mass shootings, as with suicide, is a matter of life and death. But first, the media has to be honest about the role it plays in perpetuating such violence.

To the media outlets that might resist changing the way mass shootings are covered, Johnston says: “You don’t want to believe you have this power, but you do.”