Media Coverage of Mass Shootings is Broken

social sharing

Being an American exposed to constant media coverage of mass shootings is painful. Mass shootings used to be devastating events that brought Americans together in a search for answers. Why would someone do this? Why did he choose this particular group of people or event to target? At the very least, after the shooting at Columbine High School, we largely agreed that mass shootings are a phenomenon that we should deal with.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. This is likely a factor of the seemingly endless string of murders making us numb to the news.

New outlets now seem to focus on one piece of the story that has novelty:

While these topics have value and should be discussed, they miss the bigger point: Mass shootings continue to happen in the United States and there are not enough actions being taken to stop them.

The Onion continues to be the one media outlet that seems to grasp this point.

The Dangers of Public Notoriety

The Washington Post public mass shootings database shows that before 2000, there were 3 mass shootings in the United States per year. We now experience a mass shooting once every 47 days.

Mass Shootings by size and time – Washington Post public mass shootings database

That begs the question – Why has the pace picked up so dramatically?

While increased access and demand to guns bears a huge percentage of blame, our click-based society needs to be held accountable as well. As human beings, we have a tendency to want to know why tragic events happen. This pushes focus to the perpetrator. What were his motives? What was he trying to say? How did he get his weapons?

Each question leads to another mention of his name, more notoriety, more website traffic, and more sharing for the social media platforms who distribute the content.

News and social media platforms expose other mass murderers who are in their planning process. Studies have shown that this can lead to copy cat crimes. Per The National Center for Health Research:

Two weeks after the Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2018, 638 copycat threats targeted schools nationwide. These threats are often jokes or hoaxes that spread through social media, but they can still be harmful.  

In 2007, a Virginia Tech student killed 32 students and faculty at the university. Prior to the shooting, he expressed a desire in writing to repeat the shooting at Columbine. Since then, many shooters have cited the Virginia Tech gunman as an inspiration and others have threatened to kill more than the 32 victims killed.

What Can Be Done About It?

There are some great organizations like No Notoriety and Don’t Name Them that are proposing common sense journalistic measures to stop the spread of notoriety of murderers in media coverage of mass shootings. Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute recently offered some suggestions to NPR on how they should responsibly approach covering mass murderers in news stories.

It’s reasonable to expect newsrooms to take responsibility for the impact they have on these tragedies. Shouldn’t we expect the same from platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter?

These platforms have proven that they will indeed take some steps to pull back on the spread of misinformation within their channels. This shows that their days of being independent platforms based solely on user interest driving algorithms is clearly over. We hold drug dealers accountable for their role in drug-related crimes. Social media platforms who allow for the distribution of news that glorifies murderers should too be held accountable for their role in that process.

The incentive of viewership, site visits, and revenue exists, and it’s understandable that news outlets need to make money to survive. Unfortunately, these are perverse incentives when it comes to overall public health. Let’s start demanding more of the companies that control what we read, see, and hear.

For example:

  • Why can’t social networks remove the sharing option on articles that give mass shooters notoriety?
  • In the case of Google Search, why can’t their mysterious search algorithm punish websites that seek to capitalize on mass shootings?
  • Can Google label inbound links to articles about mass murderers “nofollow” so they don’t provide SEO value to the websites violating these responsibilities?

We need to continue applying public pressure on those responsible for making killers household names.

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