The media need to rethink coverage of school shootings.
Extensive, sensational coverage glorifies the act itself. It could also be placing our students at greater risk.
If you don’t think that media coverage is playing a role in these shootings, you need to consider the facts about what happened at McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur.
I should preface all this by stating the obvious: McNair is outside of our coverage area. We weren’t faced with the difficult choice of how to inform our readers about the events there. I hope we never are.
On Aug. 20, a young man by the name of Michael Brandon Hill entered McNair, carrying an AK-47.
What was one of the first things Hill did?
He asked the clerk to call a local television station. He wanted cameras there to film his rampage. He also told the clerk that he wanted to die.
If you work in the media and Hill’s request doesn’t make you think twice about the way we’re covering these things, you are in denial.
Fortunately, that very same clerk managed to talk some sense into him before Hill followed through with his plans. We were lucky, this time.
But it shouldn’t require another Sandy Hook to make us realize something has to change.
The school shooters are committing a grandiose form of suicide. Media, traditionally, doesn’t cover suicides, and is very careful when it does. It’s a long-standing custom, borne out of numerous studies from groups like the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the National Institute of Mental Health.
“More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals,” the NIMH concluded. “The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.”
Everybody wants their lives to have meaning. A school shooting is a desperate act committed by a deeply troubled individual who wants to die and feel validated in the process. Press coverage unintentionally provides that validation.
As reporters we are obligated to act in a way that informs the public but also does not jeopardize public safety. We do this all the time. Police ask us to omit certain details that might thwart an active investigation, for example.
The scale of a shooting or attempted shooting is much different, of course. There are evacuations to consider. There are parents who need to be informed about what’s happening. Social media reports will follow, and that’s not something the traditional media can control.
What the media can control, however, is giving the gunman the attention he craves. We don’t have to send out camera crews and live trucks. The media can control the narrative. There’s no need to find heroes and assign blame, or conduct in-depth psychological profiles.
The endless probing of the ultimate unanswerable question “Why?” is a task best left to mental health professionals. No pop psychologist, columnist, pundit or evening anchor will bring any clarity to the issue. We are much more likely to misinform readers and viewers with endless speculation.
I’m on record saying that we need to take another look at how these perpetrators are able to carry out acts of mass murder. Easy access to military-style weapons is, in my view, something we need to revisit. Unfortunately, that requires action on the federal level, and D.C. barely functions as it is.
The question of “Why” might be something we as reporters can address ourselves.
Why do they do it?
Because they know we’ll tell the world about it.
It’s time to turn off the microphone and stop recording. The next time a school shooting happens, the national networks need to stay right where they are instead of descending on communities. Local journalists should respond with restraint.
Let the mental health professionals and police deal with it. If there are casualties, report them in a straightforward manner. Discuss the victims, if you must discuss anyone.
Quit looking for heroes and quit fishing for the motives of villains.
Just stop. We are not helping.