Mass Shootings and The Media: A Complicated Relationship

Jason Fehrnstrom, Scarlet Staff

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On April 20, 1999, a pair of alienated, vengeful students went on a deadly shooting spree that killed 13 and injured 20 people at their Colorado high school. These horrific images seared themselves into the minds of the American people. The shooting, typically referred to as “Columbine,” commanded widespread media attention and ignited political debates regarding gun control, bullying, violent movies, and a litany of other contentious issues.

In the months following the aforementioned killing spree, mass shootings occupied a space at the forefront of the national consciousness. Consequently, the American public demanded meaningful change from their representatives. Anti-bullying programs were enacted, school security improved, and congress nearly passed a law requiring universal background checks to purchase firearms. For a brief moment, it appeared that the innocent slain on that fateful day did not die in vain.

Unfortunately, less than twenty years later, the phenomenon of the “active shooter” has become a fixture of modern American life. To be alive in 2018 is to have to constantly bear witness to tragedies that were inconceivable merely a generation ago. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit institution that tracks gun-related deaths and injuries in the United States, there were 345 mass shootings in 2017 alone.

It seems as though these events have lost their capacity to hold the media’s attention, let alone inspire meaningful political change. For instance, on Jan. 23, the nation suffered its eleventh school shooting of the year when a fifteen year old in Benton, Ky. opened fire on his classmates, killing two and injuring more than eighteen.

According to Media Matters for America, a non-profit institution concerned with navigating today’s fragmented media environment, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC dedicated only sixteen minutes of coverage to this shooting in aggregate.

Evidently, the American public’s continuous exposure to these horrific crimes has rendered them as insignificant as any other evening headline. The fact that these events have receded into the background of our media landscape demonstrates that the American public has become accustomed to ritualized mass violence. This desensitization is certainly disconcerting, however, the lack of media coverage is not necessarily a cause for concern.

Disseminating information about mass shootings is an extremely delicate task, and the mass media has repeatedly demonstrated that it is incapable of doing it properly. Media Matters for America did an analysis of the media coverage regarding the horrific attack in Las Vegas that killed fifty-eight concert-goers that demonstrates this incompetence.

The analysis revealed that “conversations about how to solve gun violence — via policy or other means — were few in number and quickly tapered off in the days following the shooting.”

Additionally, the small portion of news segments that actually mentioned legislative solutions “disproportionately featured Republicans with ties to the gun industry.”

The lionshare of media coverage regarding the Las Vegas shooting can be adequately described as having a cinematic, sensational quality. Major networks focused their coverage on details about the perpetrator, the weapons used, the timeline of the shooting, the stories of victims, and videos of the shooting itself.

There is a formidable amount of evidence that suggests that sensationalized coverage devoid of substantive, solutions-oriented segments inspires “copycat” shootings. Before carrying out their gruesome killing-sprees, many of America’s most notorious mass shooters formed imaginary bonds with previous shooters.

For example, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed dozens of students at Georgia Tech a decade ago, idolized and studied the Columbine shooters for years before carrying out his attack.

Before carrying out an attack on an elementary school that killed twenty-six people, Adam Lanza collected news stories about previous mass shootings to find the strengths and weaknesses of his predecessors.

Media coverage of mass shootings is having the opposite of its intended effect. Irresponsible, sound-bite reporting is causing the general public to cower in fear of senseless violence, rather than demand meaningful change from their representatives.

Additionally, media coverage of mass shootings emboldens sick, vengeful people to carry out their atrocities, as it emphasizes the fear these attacks can inspire.

If we are to put a stop to this madness, the news networks need to completely reimagine their journalistic approach to these events. News networks should dedicate their coverage to educating the public about sensible gun control, the social maladies that prompt mass violence, mental health services, and the signs that indicate someone may commit an attack. It is entirely possible that a strategic reformulation of this sort could save innocent lives.