I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.
Those words are from a 2015 blog post of a young man named Chris Harper-Mercer, describing Vester Flanagan, a man who killed a reporter and photographer on-air at a Virginia TV station before shooting himself, days previously. Harper-Mercer went on to shoot nine people to death at his community college in Oregon before shooting himself.
Social scientists have long said that events like mass shootings are contagious, and that media serve as carriers. Forensic psychologist Park Dietz told the Village Voice in 1999 (5/4/99) that suicide, product tampering and mass murder lent themselves to imitation, and the degree of imitation is connected to sustained and sensationalized media coverage.
UC San Diego’s David Phillips said he’d written a series of suggested guidelines for the World Health Organization that would make stories like this less likely to be imitated, without making it so the stories disappeared from the paper, adding, “You have to think of these stories as a sort of advertisement to mass murder.”
After the 2012 Sandy Hook school mass murder, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci (Atlantic, 12/19/12) offered some tentative media guidelines. Noting that research finds “establishing a path of action — a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects — is important in enabling follow-through,” Tufecki suggested that “law enforcement should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them.” In other words, no immediate stories about which guns exactly or how much Robocop gear were used. And, she said:
The killer should not be profiled extensively, at least not at first…. We do not need to know which exact video games they played, what they wore or what their favorite bands were.
Which leads us, of course, to CNN‘s slow pans over the arsenal of the man who killed 59 people in Las Vegas October 1, and the Washington Post headline (10/2/17) about how the killer “enjoyed gambling, country music; lived quiet life.” The fact that the paper later changed the headline doesn’t change the mindset that produced it, which is that, when killers are white, they are first and foremost human beings whose violent acts are out of keeping, bizarre and above all no reason to look askance at those who happen to share their ethnicity or religion.
Part of the problem is the rush to coverage, which is—in part—responsible for nonsense like AP, Newsweek and Time (among others) running online reports that ISIS claimed responsibility for the Las Vegas massacre. Here, too, the fact that CBS, for example, noted that ISIS made the claim with no proof still compels the question of what value—news or societal—is to be found in repeating unsubstantiated claims at all. Although as FAIR analyst Adam Johnson (FAIR.org, 10/3/17) noted, in the emotionally and politically charged hours after mass violence, it does abet demagogues both in right-wing media and within ISIS itself in their effort to blame Muslims, to promote their shared “clash of civilizations” narrative.
Some nonsense comes dressed up as thoughtfulness. Washington Post factchecker Glenn Kessler (10/4/17) gave “two Pinocchios” (“significant omissions and/or exaggerations”) to the claim by an obviously heated Sen. Tim Kaine that the attack was reason to oppose a GOP bill that would streamline the purchase of silencers for firearms. His remarks implied he thought silencers made shooting quieter, when actually they only muffle direction and besides, noise wasn’t “the only” reason police were able to locate the killer.
You could also check the box for misleading superlatives. As The Root‘s Michael Harriot (10/3/17) pointed out, repeated references to the “worst mass shooting in US history” erased massacres like the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when after bombing and burning the part of town known as “Black Wall Street,” white mobs—some “deputized” by local law enforcement, and given guns from the city armory—killed as many as 300 African-Americans. It’s not a contest, but context matters.
There is naturally a need for reporting. Among other things, media could explore, as did The Nation‘s George Zornick last summer (6/29/17), how the NRA has gone from a calm advocate for hunters to “a primal outlet for hard-right paranoia.” NRA head Wayne LaPierre, Zornick notes, “understands the gun-rights movement as a culture war first and a battle over gun laws second.” At the group’s annual meeting, LaPierre declared:
It’s up to us to speak up against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.
And, as Pamela Haag, the historian Zornick cites, has pointed out, the country has not always been that gun-happy; in her book The Gunning of America, Haag writes:
The gun culture that exists today in America developed out of an unexceptional, perpetual quest for new and larger markets that had exceptional social consequences. The tragedy of American gun violence emerged from the banality of the American gun business.
Exploring such issues thoughtfully is not as easy as replaying footage of people screaming and running. But it’s more likely to move us forward.