Extensive coverage of shooters’ lives encourages copycats

News outlets are much more likely to run coverage of shooters than victims, allowing online groups to hero-worship terrorists.

Earlier this month, a shooting at a technical college in the Eastern-European peninsula of Crimea left at least 20 dead and dozens wounded. Russia and Ukraine were thrust into political debates no less heated than America’s. One aspect confirmed the worst fears of many: the shooter, only 18 years old, wore an outfit closely resembling those worn by the Columbine killers.

But why do I know this detail? Why do I know his name and what his classmates thought of him? Why do I need to know what he thought of the school, how he entered the building and how the attack took place?

School shootings horrify the world. As with most tragedies, people rightfully want to know more, thanks to a combination of sympathy and a desire for potentially important information. Facts like the shooter’s motivation and what weapons were used, important for political debate, should be readily available.

Unfortunately, many sites, intentionally or otherwise, give undue attention to the shooters themselves. Studying three different school shootings from 2007, 2012 and 2015, Professor Nicole Smith Dahmen concluded that photos of attackers outnumber photos of each deceased victim by a ratio of 16 to one. Some sites obviously capitalize more on shooter coverage than others. The BBC reported the Crimea shooter’s name, a few photos of him and some student interviews; The Sun, treating the tragedy like an exploitation film, wrote of his travels through the halls and posted as many security pictures of him as they could find. The article even showed one of him aiming at a fleeing student.

The blame for such coverage falls on the media who provide it as well as those that view it, whether they be a harmless or harmful viewer. The harmless viewers, thanks to some combination of sympathy, curiosity and mindless scrolling, finds themselves taking in much more information of the shooting than should be necessary.

There is also the harmful viewer, one who enjoys seeing this type of content. The internet has an unlimited number of communities, but many of them seem to revel in watching gruesome footage that would would shock any normal person. Desensitization soon leads to glorification.

After the Aurora theater shooting, I scrolled by a highly rated post that praised the shooter and likened him to “The Dark Knight’s” Joker. How pathetic. And how terrifying that so many people, in the privacy the web provides, would celebrate such a tragedy. The Crimea killer himself belonged to an online group that praised the Columbine attackers. Such groups even market clothes that resemble those worn by the original attackers.

One can see the horrible logic behind copycat school shootings. An angry, mentally disturbed individual dying for a way to make themselves known sees how the news covers attackers. The media shamelessly displays the attacker’s manifesto and pictures. The individual finds groups online praising the attacker and finally becomes inspired to commit a similar act.

Combatting school shootings will require a lot of work, but news coverage can improve through two steps. First, the news must decrease its coverage of the shooters. Second, reporters should focus much more energy on the victims.

The more journalists take it upon themselves to get inside the heads of killers, the more they risk desensitizing their audiences through constant shock. Instead, they should try to humanize the victims involved as much as possible. How do the families of the deceased feel? How are survivors moving on after the attack? What were the deceased victims like?

Obviously, moderation is needed. A victim of an attack, survivor or deceased, should not be thrust into the spotlight with every aspect of their life laid bare. But as more victims are covered by the news, more of that information will circulate. Darker corners of the web will find their resources drying up.

News coverage has already improved in the wake of criticism. Many sites now try to broadcast the killer’s name as little as possible, and more articles try to list victims’ names, pictures and facts about them. A complete transition, nonetheless, of how we cover shootings is necessary if we want to reduce the risk of copycat shooters.

Post Author: Nate Gibbons