Do journalists deserve some blame for America’s mass shootings?

The reporter who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing initially thought she was in Charleston, South Carolina, to chronicle the lives of nine church-goers who died in 2015 when a stranger with a Glock murdered them while they were praying.

The names, mug shots and one paragraph each about the lives of those nine victims did make it into Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s story, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof,” published in GQ in September 2017.

But the rest of her over 12,000-word story told the tale of their killer instead. Ghansah spared nothing in tracking down intimate details of the shooter’s life, coming from his childhood friends, elementary school principal, church minister, co-workers, teenage pals and more. The reporter went back to his birth, telling of the isolation of his school years as a low-income white boy, can’t-get-out-of-bed depression, rancid racism, incessant preparations for killing African-American parishioners and his death sentence for a federal hate crime conviction.

It’s an incredible work of journalism, but also an example of the type of mass shooting coverage that’s maddening to advocates who, for years, have tried to little avail to persuade the media to stop publishing the names and images of mass shooters.

This article first published in Quill Magazine in June. It’s available for reprints. Contact me for details.

Adam Lankford, one of the nation’s leading academics who studies mass shootings, said he respects Ghansah and her skillful work, because in-depth investigations like this piece can help scholars find patterns and create solutions to the nation’s mass shooting epidemic. But, he added, he wishes Ghansah knew how dangerous it is to publish mass shooters’ names and photos.

“The Charleston church shooter received more than $17 million worth of free advertising in media mentions following his attack,” Lankford said. “He has already been cited as a source of inspiration by multiple copycats, including the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooter who killed 26 victims and wounded 20 more.”

There’s mounting evidence of a contagion effect in media coverage of mass shootings and school shootings, but experts say that most journalists know nothing about the research. Victims’ advocates and academic scholars who urge media reform have said the media is doing better at reporting more about victims, survivors and the community, but they feel frustrated by their lack of progress in getting the press to limit the use of mass shooters’ names and images. Because reporters and editors know that reporting about mass shooters can help society by highlighting problems and potential solutions, it’s key that journalists themselves start a discussion about how to fulfill their duty to society, while also limiting the harmful effects of mass shooting coverage.

“No individual journalist wants to think his or her well-intentioned work is contributing to further carnage,” said University of Oregon journalism professor Nicole Smith Dahmen, who researches media coverage of mass shootings. “But we have to ask ourselves: What is the morally responsible thing to do here?”

She said it’s time for newsrooms to discuss changing their reporting of “who” in mass shooting stories because of the mounting evidence about how harmful the coverage can be. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics requires journalists to seek the truth and report it, but also minimize harm, she said.

The first step is learning about the research. Even those journalists who know about some of the research don’t realize “how compelling and persuasive it is,” Lankford said.

“It’s more than just anecdotal evidence. It’s not just speculative,” said Lankford, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama.

Mounting evidence

Over the past three years, academic scholars prying into mass shootings have built a convincing body of evidence to show that media coverage is causing harm.

A new mass shooting gets its incentive from similar, recent mass shootings, and this contagiousness lasts for 13 days, according to a 2015 study by five researchers, including Sherry Towers, a mathematician and statistician at Arizona State University. On average, mass shootings happen every two weeks in the U.S., and school shootings occur monthly, the researchers wrote in the article, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings.”

Lankford’s research has delved into the reasons why one mass shooting might lead to the next.

He scrutinized 24 shooters whose statements indicated they wanted fame from their crimes. It’s a normal thing for American mass shooters to seek fame. Our nation has just 31 percent of the world’s rampage shooters, yet it has 75 percent of the fame-seeking shooters, Lankford reported in a 2016 article, “Fame-seeking rampage shooters.”

Their statements are chilling.

One of the 1999 Columbine shooters said he knew he and his co-shooter would have “followers.” Both gunmen debated which big-name director would create a movie about them.

The 2015 Umpqua Community College shooter wrote that when a rampage shooter spills a little blood, the whole world knows who he is because his face is on every screen and everyone says his name.

“Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight,” the gunman wrote.

Lankford wrote that fame-seekers on average killed seven victims and wounded eight — more than twice the victims of other mass shooters. The number of fame-seeking shooters has grown from just one in the 1960s up to 15 since 2000. Lankford predicted that number will keep growing, and fame-seeking shooters will try to kill more people, knowing more victims mean more media attention. They’ll also innovate new ways to earn more media — for example, hitting unimaginable targets such as in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The Sandy Hook shooter debated in an online forum which school shooting was the most famous.

“Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers,” he wrote.

Wanting to quantify the amount of media attention that mass shooters attract, Lankford used a media tracking service to measure media coverage, online searches and Twitter mentions of seven mass killers between 2013 and 2017. The value of the perpetrators’ media coverage on average was worth $75 million, he wrote in a May 2017 article: “Do the media unintentionally make mass killers into celebrities?” Killer coverage was worth a lot more money than earned media of professional athletes and just a little less than the biggest television and film stars.

“This media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats,” wrote Lankford.

As for photographic coverage of mass shootings, newspapers are publishing far more photos of perpetrators than victims — by a ratio of 16 to 1, according to research by Dahmen, the journalism professor, who researches media coverage of mass shootings. Following 2007’s Virginia Tech shooting, in which 32 people died, 95 percent of front pages had a photo, often in the lead story. For 2012’s Sandy Hook shooting, which killed 26 — many children — 90 percent of papers had front-page, lead story photos. After 2015’s Umpqua Community College shooting, which took nine lives, just 35 percent of papers had front-page photos. Maybe it had less coverage because fewer people died, Dahmen wrote.

In all cases, the perpetrator photos outnumbered the victim photos. For Virginia Tech, there were 42 images of the perpetrator for every one photo of a victim. For Sandy Hook, the perpetrator-to-victim photo ratio was 3 to 1, and for Umpqua the ratio was 15 to 1. Dahmen wondered whether the extreme tragedy of child fatalities at Sandy Hook could explain why the perpetrator photos didn’t dominate so much.

“Perhaps this was a rare case where newspaper editors made a conscious decision for ethical reasons to emphasize the victims and shock of community instead of publicizing the perpetrator,” she wrote.

Dahmen’s article about shooter and victim photos was published Feb. 14, the same day a mass shooter opened fire and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Researchers and advocates of media reform have said that the press did a good job of reporting on the Parkland victims and survivors — who have become vocal, effective advocates for gun control. However, as with all other coverage of mass shootings, the name and image of the killer have been reported far and wide, and they continue appearing frequently in the pages of the local newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Sun-Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson didn’t return a message seeking comment.

About three months after the shooting in Parkland, a student in Santa Fe, Texas, killed 10 people at his high school. Days later, Parkland survivor David Hogg tweeted that he wished media outlets would stop naming the shooter.

Pushing for change

Ending perpetrator publicity has been a main focus for campaigns that urged the media to change mass shooting coverage.

Early efforts came from victims’ advocates with the group “No Notoriety” and the “Don’t Name Them” campaign, a partnership of Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training center, the I Love U Guys Foundation and the FBI. Lankford and his research partner, Eric Madfis, recently released a new, scaled-back proposal.

All of these campaigns ask journalists to stop publishing perpetrators’ names and photos, which will deny them the infamy they were seeking, if they knew that no matter what, no one would know their name or face.

Lankford and Madfis wrote that the previous campaigns went too far by trying to persuade the media to shift its focus away from perpetrators and toward victims, injured survivors and heroes. Other than limiting the name and image, the media should report everything else about mass shootings in as much detail as desired. Stories about perpetrators are essential because they reveal offenders’ behavior patterns, help scholars to find evidence-based strategies to stop shootings and teach the public to report warning signs in would-be shooters, which could thwart attacks.

“By reporting everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired, the media can continue to fulfill their responsibility to the public,” they wrote.

Lankford said that in the grand scheme of things, keeping assault rifles away from would-be mass shooters would make the biggest difference in ending the deadliest mass shootings. The current political climate makes gun control legislation difficult-to-impossible, while changing media coverage is a workable solution.

“You’d think negotiating with the media to change their behavior should be easier than negotiating with the NRA,” Lankford said. “But the proof can be in the pudding in terms of: is this just a big business, and every business is defensive and protects their own products?”

Tom and Caren Teves, who founded No Notoriety after their 24-year-old son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, said they support coverage that explains how and why mass shooters commit their crimes, just with strict limits on using the name and photo. They urge a focus on stories about victims, survivors and heroes — and say this has improved about media coverage over the years. It’s much harder to convince journalists to limit a perpetrator’s name and photo.

When Caren Teves speaks to reporters one-on-one, many say the No Notoriety approach makes sense, and they would try to adhere to it. But when the discussion works its way up through a newsroom, the editor or station manager nixes the idea.

“The media likes to look at themselves like on the higher moral ground, and frankly, on this argument they don’t have the higher moral ground,” Tom Teves said. “It’s an inconvenient truth for the whole media because they would have to change what they do, and they are afraid to make the change because they are afraid about the bottom line.”

Dahmen, the journalism scholar, explained that the challenge in asking journalists to stop publishing shooters’ names and images is that it’s a standard journalistic practice to report the “who” in a story.

“In journalism 101 you learn: who, what, when, where, why and how. ‘Who’ is the first thing,” Dahmen said.

She has conducted research that indicates that change is likely to be slow.

She and three co-researchers in 2016 surveyed 1,300 journalists about their opinions on mass shooting coverage and found that most respondents were in favor of perpetrator coverage, strongly supporting naming the perpetrator and including his photo in stories. Journalists largely didn’t acknowledge or were ambivalent about the contagion effect of their coverage, said the article, “Covering Mass Shootings,” published in May 2017.

Editors had the most positive view about the current state of mass shooting coverage, and they supported perpetrator coverage more than all other news workers. Age was the most powerful predictor about journalists’ attitudes, with older journalists thinking that current mass shooting coverage was more effective and strongly supporting the coverage of perpetrators.

Two sides

As any good journalist knows, there’s always more than one side to a story. The other side here comes from the reporters and editors who’ve seen the ways that stories about mass shooters — and printing their names — can benefit the public.

Any journalist who has covered a mass shooting is haunted by thoughts of covering it responsibly, according to an email by Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. The proposal to stop naming shooters is worth debating, and journalists should listen rather than automatically seeing it as an attack on the media, he said. But because every mass shooter is different, there may be times that it’s necessary to name killers and show their photos.

“We can certainly ask, in any story after a mass shooting, ‘Is the name of the perpetrator relevant THIS time?’” Shapiro said. “I think a killer’s name and image should be used with great care, and only when necessary to advance the story.”

There are real-life examples of how the perpetrator coverage can advance the story.

Silvia Foster-Frau, the San Antonio Express-News’ lead reporter for the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, said publishing the gunman’s name prompted two women from the killer’s hometown to call and report that he sexually assaulted or harassed them in high school.

Other Express-News stories about the shooter revealed that a domestic violence conviction while he served in the U.S. Air Force should have stopped him from buying firearms. The Air Force didn’t report that conviction to the nation’s criminal background check system. Now the service is reviewing all criminal records and ensuring convictions are properly reported.

“By knowing about this past, [reporter Sig Christenson] was able to identify this flaw in the system and hopefully prevent something like this from happening again,” Foster-Frau explained.

Independently, the Express-News did debate and omit the shooter’s name and photo from some stories about victims and survivors, to be sensitive to their grief, she noted. After learning more about the research about mass shooting coverage and proposals for media reform, Foster-Frau said it’s worth a wide newsroom discussion, which must happen before journalists are breaking news about the next major shooting.

“It’s at a point where these mass shootings and mass traumas are happening so frequently,” she said. “Newsrooms need to be having more serious conversations about how we are covering mass traumas in our community and raise these ethical issues. Bring them to the table and talk about what is best practice — what’s in the best interests of the society we live in.”

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