'Shed a light on crime, not the criminal' - Does the media need to change how mass shootings are reported?
In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, there have been increased calls for media companies to change how they report on such heinous acts.
While sober reporting of the grim details is the job of the news industry, ensuring the coverage neither glorifies the people responsible or encourages a copycat atrocity is also part of the media’s function in the 21st century.
When something written anywhere in the world can pop up in anyone’s Google search or social media feed, the responsibility is now a global one, not just a local one.
However, a look at some of the coverage of the Las Vegas massacre, especially in the US, shows it has strayed into worrying areas.
One major US network currently has a two-minute video on their site called ‘How Stephen Paddock orchestrated the Las Vegas massacre’ while garish graphics and illustrations detailing the massacre analysed the attack in a way that has troubled many.
Example of step-by-step story that creates an illusion of knowledge & news—but we know from suicide research helps inspire the next one. pic.twitter.com/pvDTDTZUv0— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) October 2, 2017
One of those concerned by the coverage is criminologist and USA Today Board of Contributors member James Alan Fox.
Mr Fox believes that too often media coverage strays into dangerous areas, focussing so much on the perpetrator that it may incite others to carry out an ever more grotesque act.
Speaking to RTE's News At One this week, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University said: "Far too much attention is put on the killer and that this [shooting] was a record, the biggest, the worst...
"What does that do? That potentially inspires others to break the record. Does it really matter that it was a record, does it matter to the families? Absolutely not.
"It's a challenge for some people. We know that the Sandy Hook shooter was inspired by the shooting in Norway by Anders Breivik. He wanted to be a record setter too. What matters is all the lives lost, the pain being felt and we have to be very careful how we cover it."
The so-called ‘contagion effect’ of mass shootings (defined as more than four people killed in one event) has been studied by Sherry Towers, a physicist at Arizona State University.
In a 2015 paper Towers examined the link between media coverage and copycat mass shootings.
Towers and her team looked at mass shootings and school shootings (which also receive very large levels of coverage) and shooting incidents where three or less people were killed.
Due to the sheer number of them, shooting events with three or less victims almost never get large press coverage outside local news in the US.
The study revealed that there were definite clusters to be found in the immediate aftermath of the events like mass shootings and school shootings but not after the events where three or less people were shot, leading the research team to hypothesise that media coverage was a factor in cantagion.
Towers cites how coverage of cases of suicide has changed in the US as they were proven to be contagious.
Similarly in Ireland the excellent work by the Headline group has seen media coverage here change dramatically for the better in the area of suicide and mental health issues.
And when it comes to coverage of mass shootings, there are changes taking place in the US media.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper refuses to name or picture mass shooters on his flagship show. On his show on Monday, Cooper again repeated his assertion that he would not name or picture the killer saying mass shooters deserve “no such publicity” before adding they do, however, deserve scrutiny in a bid to prevent future tragedies.
Cooper’s stance has been praised by a group called No Noteriety, who campaign to change how the media cover mass shootings.
Founded after the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead, on their website they have a “challenge” to the media which states: “The quest for notoriety and infamy is a well-known motivating factor in rampage mass killings and violent copycat crimes. In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we CHALLENGE THE MEDIA – calling for RESPONSIBLE MEDIA COVERAGE FOR THE SAKE OF PUBLIC SAFETY when reporting on individuals who commit or attempt acts of rampage mass violence thereby depriving violent like-minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave.”
The group has the support of a large number of relatives of victims of mass shootings while the International Police Association also backs their aims.
A Texas State University initiative in the same vein, called "Don't Name Them", is backed by the FBI.
Speaking to Independent.ie, Towers said that the media has a right to name perpetrators and perhaps the public's interest in such events need to be examined too.
"Why are they so thirsty for information on those responsible for such acts," she said, before adding that knowledge of a previous mass shooter in no way helps identify the next possible shooter.
Towers study looked at incidents up until 2013. She told us that they recently began to re-examine the data and found out that over 100 mass shootings had happened in the US since their study ended.
That astounding number has only re-enforced Towers belief that reporting on mass shootings should follow a similar set of guidelines to suicide reporting.
"These stories, because of their reach, gets to those most vulnerable to ideation," she said. "We no longer report on how someone takes their own life.
"But suicide usually only affects one person, their family and loved ones. Mass shootings are different and play on the public's fears in a totally different way.
"It is hard to report on events like these without it appearing like a 'how to' guide but I would agree with the policy of No Notoriety. The focus should be on the victims, " she added.
So the media’s job of reporting the facts of an atrocity remains. It is how they do that task that Mr Fox deems most important.
“Shed a light on the crime, not a spotlight on the criminal,” he told the News at One this week.
"People want to understand how it happened and potentially identify others. But we cannot predict it. All we then to do with the overemphasis on the shooter's background and bio is humanise that person in a way that is not deserved."