Luke Jacobs: Stop sensationalizing mass shooters

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 4:28pm

Imagine you are, in the words of forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, one of the “small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their lap and a hit list in their mind.” You turn on the news and hear countless details of the latest mass shooter’s life — describing him as a quiet guy, a loser, someone who just always avoided others. This strikes a chord. Dietz says, “It only takes one or two of them to say — ‘that guy is just like me, that’s the solution to my problem, that's what I'll do tomorrow.'” 

You are flush with envy, excitement and purpose. You run out your front door the next day with that infamous smirk we’ve all seen on TV. Tomorrow, you tell yourself, you’ll be on millions of people’s screens, but even better, on the minds of millions who will learn everything about you. 

The two dominant camps on the mass shooting debate — those who chalk it up to mental health or those who chalk it up to the availability of guns — fail to recognize this issue of fame that captivates so many mass shooters. This is convenient from a political perspective: It gives Democrats and Republicans a clear boogeyman to draw on whenever they are asked to comment on the latest mass shooting. Yet these stances fail to consider a novel solution to surge of shootings: ending the reporting of a mass shooter’s name, face and identity.

The idea behind such a ban is simple: Mass shooters crave a spotlight, and denying their recognition would greatly reduce the number of random killings in the country. A growing number of researchers have dived into the psyche of copycat killers, those who commit an attack similar to ones just before, and concluded the presence of sensational coverage of violent murders leads to more of the same.

Take the 1999 Columbine shooting, for example, where a report by Mother Jones found 14 separate cases of suspects plotting to launch attacks on the anniversary of Columbine. The report discovered that in at least 10 of these cases the suspects referred to the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as idols, martyrs or gods. The idolization indicates a growing obsession of the violently disturbed to seek out inspiration from others rather than coming to their violent conclusions on their own.

The problem with the mass media’s coverage of these attacks is everyone except the victims wins. Viewers get entertained, the media enjoys massive viewership spikes and the killer gets his 10 seconds of fame.

“Entertained” may not seem like the best word, but that’s exactly how the media presents its content and how viewers consume it. Interviews with the shooter’s family, body count graphics and “investigative” reporting on the killer’s lifelong history are all unnecessary bits of fluff designed to suck all the juice possible out of a story to retain views and shares.

Stopping this sensationalized coverage doesn’t mean the media would have to cease its duty to inform the public. Dietz recommends the media “localize (these stories) to the affected community and make it as boring as possible to every other market.” Though it may seem painful to “normalize” these shootings, it doesn't mean we have to stop fighting for other solutions, such as comprehensive gun control or investments in mental health.

So far, the advice from many advocates of changing media coverage is to encourage the news and their consumers to stop producing or consuming this content. This is hardly sufficient.

The media faces overwhelming incentives to keep producing this coverage if their competitors do so — and why wouldn't they? They are for-profit businesses with no legal or moral obligation outside of filling their directors' pockets. On the other side of the equation, we as consumers indirectly feel a sense of moral obligation to continue watching and are largely unwilling to constantly share political attacks on the mainstream media’s content.

A much more drastic and sweeping measure would be to lobby Congress to introduce a bill altering the First Amendment of the Constitution to include a measure limiting for-profit media companies’ coverage of these attacks. Passing something as sweeping as a constitutional amendment sounds like a political pipe dream in our era of gridlock, but it is actually an example of a rare solution that transcends party lines.

Constitutional amendments themselves may seem like a relic; there hasn’t been a ratified proposal in over 20 years. This doesn’t mean, however, that calling for a proposal is by any means a crazy idea. There is still an active effort among many in Congress to keep it relevant — over 70 amendments were proposed last year alone, and 11,699 measures have been proposed over our nation’s history.

The revision would be irrelevant to the gun lobby — meaning it would untie the handcuffs Republican politicians have to the lobby and give them an opportunity to take action on an emotional issue. It also frees Democrats from the illogical, but widely held, concern among conservative voters that they are taking advantage of mass shootings to destroy the Second Amendment.

With sufficient grassroots organizing, states would be put under a pressure that transcends party lines and has significant backing from researchers. Conservatives may be wary of limiting free speech, but they are also the most likely group to deem the news “fake” and would likely welcome a process that limits its power for distortion.

This ban, if passed, would still fail to address the issue of underground reporting that would certainly pop up on online blogs and forums, but it would deny the true fame that many of these killers are after. They seek national recognition and revel in the kind of mass fear that only nationally syndicated news channels can provide as they stream in public places like airports or bars. Denying them this main avenue for infamy is a solution all sides of our fractured political spectrum should entertain.

Luke Jacobs can be reached at lejacobs@umich.edu