The right way to talk about mass shootings

As an Australian, I watch with a sort of sordid fascination when the news rolls in from around the world (but mostly America) of recent mass shootings.

A mourner at the memorial for the 2012 mass shooting at Aurora, Colorado.  Getty Images.

A mourner at the memorial for the 2012 mass shooting at Aurora, Colorado. Getty Images.

Here’s a specific case: in May this year in California, American Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others before killing himself. Such a shocking event was heavily reported by the media, especially in light of the 141-page manifesto and video Rodger left behind, where he ranted about the reasons for his actions.

To put it bluntly, Rodgers was incensed that women wouldn’t sleep with him, and so took his revenge on the world that spurned him.

Leaving aside an analysis of his actions and reasoning for another day, a problem with the aftermath of the shooting was the media’s coverage of the situation.

Now, this is not an issue of free speech, as it was in Norway when their media debated whether to publish the details of the 2011 attacks on the Workers Youth League summer camp.

The Scandinavian media is regulated by their stringent free speech laws, as well as codes of ethics and other relevant legislation, so not publishing the details of the perpetrator and his motivations wasn’t an option.

My concern is with the ramifications of the almost glamorous coverage the media gives mass shootings.

One ramification is the ‘copy cat effect’, with the phenomenon cropping up not only media coverage of mass shooting cases, but in suicide and other similarly painful events.

Analyst Josh Blackman points to studies that show “when the media deliberately decreases coverage of suicides, the rate of suicides drop”. Conversely, covering these events increases the suicide rate.

The same is true of mass shootings, with the editor of The New Atlantis – a quarterly journal for society and technology – describing a “string of mass killings” in the months and years after each reported event.

Beginning with Columbine and continuing with Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook and others, these killers expected to be given massive media coverage. Indeed some of them said they actually hoped to inspire others through this coverage.

This is why discretion is so important, even if the reporter’s first instinct is to ensure the public is given all the details behind the attack.

The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma warns that reporters “have a special responsibility to portray with precision and accuracy the estrangement of these perpetrators, and to scrupulously avoid language or images that could romanticize their actions”.

Dart goes on to highlight the ethical issues inherent in uncritically publishing videos and manifestos that promote the killer’s actions to the public.

Even if their actions are moderated and explained by the relevant professionals, publishing the manifestos and videos left behind by spree killers is an inherently dangerous activity.

The public needs to know when mass killings occurred, and more importantly, that their loved ones are safe (there is an entirely different ethical issue inherent in the on-the-ground reporting of the names of the deceased which I will leave for another day).

Perhaps the most sensible suggestions have come from independent writers, who argue that reporting on such events are ethically sound, as long as the killer(s) is not given prominence, by having their pictures or writings published. Instead, they argue that the ethical reporter will focus on the victims, and the impact caused by the tragedy on families of the victims and the community.

Poynter writer Kelly McBride argues that the ethical thing for the media to do is to publish these manifestos, providing context is added, condemning his actions and his logic. If we don’t do this, she says, “we run the risk of legitimizing his rationale”.

There is certainly logic to her argument: Rodger’s actions were rooted in misogyny, and dismissing his actions simply as those of a deranged madman ignores the misogyny inherent in our society, and the actions it promotes in individuals.

Similarly, New York Times writer Margaret Sullivan wrote of the ethical difficulties she faced when reporting on the massacre, when she tried to write about it without mentioning the name of the killer.

This practical attempt to follow her ethical inclinations proved extremely difficult, a difficulty which has been reported by other news organisations who have attempted to leave out the names of mass killers when providing live coverage of events.

But before I get too sidetracked, let me return to my example of suicide reporting.

News organisations around the world already have strict guidelines on the nature of their suicide reporting, to ensure they report on the issue ethically and only as necessary.

In Australia for example, the Australian Press Council’s standards says although general reporting on suicide can be of public benefit, coverage should be in the public interest, and not intrude on those affected. Furthermore, coverage should not seek to make suicide seem attractive.

In addition, each news outlet has their own specific code of practice that dictates the ways in which they can report on different topic and sensitive issues.

Similar rules could easily be implemented in media coverage of mass shootings. They don’t need to be the global standard to be effective; they just need to be the norm.

Obviously these measures would not dissuade those who have already made up their minds, but it would both deny them a significant amount of the notoriety they may have been counting on, and deny inspiration to those on the precipice.

Mass shootings are difficult, painful things. It’s hard for the families of those involved, the communities it took place in, and even those reporting on it. Media coverage needs to be respectful, while relaying details, and excluding the perpetrators and their motivations from the limelight.

This article has probably raised as many questions as it’s answered, but it’s began a dialogue and, hopefully, helped you form some opinions of your own on how best to report on these events in an ethical manner.