On the 26th August, two American journalists were shot dead on live television by an ex-employee of the WDJB-TV news station. As is very common with acts of violence such as this one, coverage has been focusing on the ‘who’ and the ‘why’, and we can expect this story to dominant news programmes for at least a week to come. But could there be a wider impact to the way in which acts of violence are reported?
Alongside the senseless shooting, the gunman sent what is posthumously referred to as his ‘manifesto’ to ABC News. The international media are currently in a frenzy, reporting everything they know about the killer, broadcasting reactions from ex-employers of the murderer and grieving families of the victims and repeating what the gunman defined as his motives, before he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Broadcasting news of any shooting or mass murder has inevitably changed as the nature of journalism has developed over the years. From a solitary anchor behind a desk to today’s flashy graphics and 24/7 coverage, reporting the big headlines has become more comprehensive and constant than ever before. A primary example of this is the aforementioned murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, that occurred during the previous month. Equally, the reporting of the Charleston shootings in June overwhelmingly placed emphasis on the murderer and his motivations, whilst reporting on the victims and a nation mourning took a back seat.
In June, pictures of Dylann Roof covered every corner of news websites, channels and papers with variations of the headline ‘face of a killer’ in big, bold letters next to them. And the recent coverage of Vester Lee Flanagan has been exactly the same. The media’s excessive pursuit of motives and causes is also regularly promoted to lead coverage. For instance it was reported that the killer of Parker and Ward had cited other shootings and shooters as inspiration for his actions. Flanagan stated outright that he was ‘influenced by Seung Hui Cho’ – a man who committed mass murder in Virginia in 2007 – and referred to him as his ‘boy’. So has the media’s depiction of the killer exacerbated the problem by providing ‘inspiration’ for potential killers?
One of America’s principal forensic psychiatrists, Dr Park Dietz, is frequently consulted on the potential link between the way in which media outlets report violent crimes and events, and the rise in copycats in the following weeks and months. He is hugely discouraging of how the media report on acts of violence. The very features that provide the most drama and shock to news reports – sirens shrieking, portraits of the killer and an unhealthy obsession with the body count – are the most destructive features in his view. It is argued that this form of sensationalism gives the murderer exactly what they were striving for; the spotlight. In an interview with the Independent, Dr Dietz says:
Mass murderers are almost always depressed to the point of suicide, and angrily blame others for their problems. You’ve got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their laps and a list of people they hate in their minds. They feel willing to die. When they watch the coverage of a mass murder, one or two will say – ‘That guy is just like me! That’s the solution to my problem’. They will say this quite openly to you when you interview them. It’s a conscious process … The massacre seems to offer them both an escape from their unbearable pain, and an opportunity to punish the people they blame for their plight.
This illustrates how those who commit such horrific acts are often in darkness and see violence as a way out. This escape is one that will see them labelled as a nihilistic villain. After one individual has taken this leap, those with similar outlooks are handed a method, a role model, a narrative where escape is possible and, in general, something to aim and strive for. Many psychologists and criminologists have agreed with Dr Dietz since his leading 1986 paper. Michael Arntfield, a Canadian criminology professor, said the following:
Most people in a pre-contemplative stage of offending — even fantasizing about offending — are often disinhibited upon seeing it done elsewhere.
What does this lead to? Well, the argument has been put forward that one widely published mass murder induces a stream of copycats. For instance, in the year before the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, there were two threats of shootings in schools in Pennsylvania. This starkly contrasts to the 354 threats in the two months after the attack. In addition, this seems to be a global issue when you look at the aftermath of a janitor stabbing eight children in a Chinese school in the summer of 2004. Within three months and after copious media coverage, China witnessed another man attacking 28 children, a bus driver stabbing 24 primary school children and an additional case of violence towards eight children in a school dormitory. This suggests that the impact of sensationalising news stories is culturally irrelevant.
So is there a solution for this problem? According to Dr Dietz, there is and there has been for the decades in which he has been advising news corporations. He has beseeched journalists to limit their coverage of violence, such as shootings and mass murders, to the area and community it has affected and to adopt a more moderate tone when presenting these stories to the public. It has been stressed that, should the media ignore these precautions, they can expect to see one or two similar stories arise in the following week. News organisations should also avoid putting the killer on a platform and making them the lead story by catapulting their name and face into the forefront of public consciousness.
It seems as though the international media have a decision to make. While we have a duty to report these stories, the benefit of dramatising them and making them more appealing to the masses should be assessed alongside the cost of doing this. In an age where we have the capability to expose stories to a level hitherto unheralded, media organisations must refrain from potentially reporting in a way that could lead to them having to broadcast a similarly atrocious story a fortnight later.
The choice is twofold. Either news stations moderate their coverage of mass violence, or we continue to head up a path whereby death and destruction are presented as exciting. The latter may attract more viewers and readers but it also unintentionally glorifies murder. It shouldn’t be a difficult decision.