Does Our Lust For Information Have Consequences?

We may never know why tragic school shootings happen, but we can do something about it

We may never know why tragic school shootings happen, but we can try to do something about it

In the wake of yet another tragic school shooting, the 22nd deadly incident since 1999, there are questions that need to be answered, namely, how much of a role do we play?

Yes, us, the audience in the theater on an undying quest for answers.

There is a simple premise to every business – go where the money is and make it yours. The news media is a business, and while we’d all like to think the news is unbiased and covers the pressing stories of the day just as they need to be told, the truth is, they deliver on what the audience wants because that is how they make money.

Plain and simple.

As an audience we continue to show, with our heightened attention and clicking, that during tragic events we want information. Any information. Truth and accuracy be damned.

Think for a second of what you did during the events of 9/11. Sandy Hook. Katrina. The Boston Marathon Bombing. Ebola.

Did you sit glued to your TV, hoping for something to make sense of the madness? I did.

I am not preaching that we should all turn off our TV’s and live in a bubble, I don’t believe that is the answer and since I won’t do it I won’t pledge that to you. But what I will ask is: should we do… something?

Does our ravenous desire lead the media down a perilous path? The media makes their choices and shares some blame, but should they share it with us?

Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz said in a 2009 BBC interview, “We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”

In the sports world, when a streaker or a fan runs on the field the cameras turn away and the incident is never shown on the broadcast. The reasoning: a fear of copy cat performers. Give one person a national platform and you can be sure more and more will pop up.

So, we turn away from streakers at meaningless sporting events, but we plaster a school shooters name, grades, hair color, ethnicity, Facebook page and Twitter feed all over every news media outlet, then sit back shocked, looking for answers, when another similar tragedy follows?

Students after witnessing a tragedy are not reliable sources, and should be left to mourn not have a camera or microphone thrown in their face

After witnessing a tragedy students are not reliable sources, and should be left to mourn without a camera or microphone thrown in their face

Is it such a leap to believe the media attention provided these monsters has inspired future catastrophes?

“I use to feel bad for the ones who were killed, but now Eric Harris and Seung Hui Cho became my idols,” wrote the shooter who killed one and injured two others at Seattle Pacific University in 2014, referring to the gunmen of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres.

Anti-hero copycat.

Ethics vs. Information

Often the first journalists on scene throw their mic haphazardly into the face of shocked students who just transitioned from math class to murder witness in a moment they never saw coming, no less had any time to process.

As the recent shooting in Marysville, Washington unfolded, local news affiliate KING5 interviewed multiple (minor) students on the scene and came under fire from their audience.

The news team responded:

“Our responsibility as a credible news organization is to help sort fact from rumor, especially at a time when lives are in danger,” defended Mark Briggs, Director of Digital Media. “In the age of social media, it’s critical to get as close to the source of information as possible.”

But according to Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the information that comes from students right after a tragedy is unreliable at best. “As journalists, we do the public a disservice if we’re trying to rush tidbits of information to air that are unverified, that create rumors, and create false understanding of terrible events.”

Students don’t need the unfamiliar face of a reporter asking clumsy questions like “”Was everybody crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?” as a CNN reporter asked a Sandy Hook student just after the tragedy, they need to be protected and escorted to the right people in their lives.

“The first 24 hours after witnessing an event such as the Columbine shooting is a time when children need to be with people who love and support them,” says child psychologist Donna Gaffney. “Children who are witnesses to violent events or tragic occurrences are victims in their own right. They may not be the direct recipients but as witnesses they are profoundly affected.”

So What is the Answer?

No one knows for sure how to stop these tragedies from happening, some advocate stricter gun laws, others more mental health evaluations at younger ages.  All ideas are worth researching and vetting, but more than likely there isn’t a simple ‘just add water’ cure for what ails us.

In my naïve view, the major news outlets should work together to form a standard of coverage for school shootings, based in simple logic. We can start with these, then those people smarter than I am can figure out the rest:

  • Don’t report the shooters name
  • Don’t glorify their intentions or motives
  • Don’t interview minors at the scene
  • Focus on the heroes who stopped it from being worse

What do you think? Am I crazy for thinking we bear some of the blame and that the media should do better? Are these copycat crimes, or just isolated and unavoidable incidents?

Please let us know in the comments, this is an important discussion and we want to learn from you.

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About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the broadcast media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for WorkinSports.com & WorkinEntertainment.com.

Recently Brian has become addicted to Google+ and LinkedIn so add him to your circles and make him a contact. No seriously, you should.

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