The Dangers of Sensationalizing Mass Murder
Update (2012.12.21): I’ve been asked to re-start my petition in light of the Newtown school shooting. I’m not promoting it a whole lot, but a few on Twitter are spending time trying to draw more signatures; they wanted my words so I gladly contributed them.
All eyes are once again on Colorado in the wake of a devastating mass shooting.
We experienced it 13 years ago when the shootings at Columbine High School shocked the nation. So infamous, one need only say “Columbine” and the reference is instantly recognized as the death, destruction, and loss of innocence of April 20th, 1999. I watched it unfold an hour away – at a safe distance, though it hit too close to home – as a junior high school student in Greeley, Colo., my hometown on the eastern plains.
Once again are we experiencing a media circus. This time, we have social media to help fill the need for constantly knowing what is going on. Initially, social media helped spread the news faster and inform the world about breaking developments. The amazing versatility of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. provided exactly the tools we needed.
Now it’s in extreme overload. And so are the media, particularly local and cable television networks. It’s wall-to-wall coverage and it is non-stop. Non-stop.
It’s dangerous to sensationalize mass murder. We know this from experience; serial killers and domestic terrorists have expressed keen interest in publicity as a reward for their heinous acts. Yet we fall into the trap every single time and our morbid curiosities get the best of us, allowing media outlets to capitalize on our hunger for 24/7, up-to-the-minute news.
We reward the suspects and wanna-be killers who know that the attention they crave will come to them if they can accomplish mass casualties.
And we know this, yet we don’t stop.
I’m passionate about journalism, journalistic ethics, media studies, and all of the pertinent issues we overlook so often, though news media are a part of our daily lives. This is our opportunity to stop a problem in journalism and use the extreme coverage of this shocking attack to demonstrate why sensationalized news coverage hurts the survivors of tragedy and gives power to the antagonist.
That’s why I created a petition to ask the Denver television media to change the way it is covering the theater shooting. I believe that if we start at the very nearest media sources – the most malleable, too, as local news is limited yet flexible in ways national media are not – that we can start a trend and present a discussion, nationwide, about the ways in which we disclose the situation to the American public.
No, it’s not about halting news coverage. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
What we do now – this onslaught of the most intimate details of a suspect, the family, the motives, the every move, the every possible thought – is a gigantic distraction from the story as it progresses. Of course we want to know who is responsible, and yes it is legitimate to demand a motive; but to pound it into our brains, to effectively give the tragedy’s instigator top billing in the history books over the heroes of the story? The suspect does not deserve the glory. We cannot afford to encourage the copycats and other sick individuals who are undoubtedly inspired by such abominable violence.
We must weed out the unnecessary; we need to lose the drama that glues us all to the television but pains the families for whom it is very real. We can’t lose focus of the real goals: to help the survivors survive, to recognize the real heroes, and to put justice where justice belongs. When we reward the bad guy, we are not doing justice to those who are suffering; we’re failing the people who need us the most.
Journalists are failing the victims. And many of them are exploiting them, too.
It’s not too late to change it. It’s not too late to be subtle and quick and appropriate when reporting the suspect’s name and motives. It’s not too late to exclude the irrelevant details – the names of his parents or the repetition of his sick message – in order to inform, but nothing more. It’s not too late to put the focus on what we need to do to prevent these killings, nurture the wounded, and better ourselves.
If you agree with me, please – sign the petition – I implore you. Tell the media in my home state that they have a golden opportunity. Tell them that it’s imperative and that they have the power to lead us into a new age of integrity for journalism. Maybe we can move this further if we start with Denver.
Yeah, I know. It sounds dramatic. But it is. And it’s important to me – but it is especially important and to the survivors of the Aurora tragedy and for the memory of those we have lost. Sign the petition for them.