We Need to Talk About the Aurora Movie Shooting

The media coverage of the weekend’s mass shooting at a Colorado movie theatre continues to roll out, dominating front pages and news headlines.

Myriad questions are being asked, with blame laid in all kinds of places. Is it the fault of America’s famously loose gun laws? Or the ban on guns within the cinema? Is it violent entertainment, like the movie that was showing at the scene of the murder? Role-playing video games? Mental illness?

One question that few media outlets are asking is this: How does the news coverage of events like this influence the likelihood of future events?

Over at New Statesman, BBC series Newswipe explores the issue. A forensic psychiatrist talks about responsible media coverage – and how important it is.

Charlie Brooker's Newswipe 25/03/09

Rules for media coverage of mass killings

If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders:

Don’t start the story with sirens blaring.

Don’t have photographs of the killer.

Don’t make this 24/7 coverage.

Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story …

… and not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero.

Do localise this story to the affected community and be as boring as possible in every other market.

The Newswipe psychiatrist concluded, ‘Every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.’

Nihilistic pin-up boy

At USA Today, law professor David Kopel urges similar caution.

On the night of the event, he suggested the following day’s inevitable front-page pictures should show the victims, not the murderer. (Of course, this didn’t happen.)

More tips for responsible media coverage include:

Inside the papers, running a single, small picture of the Aurora killer is sufficient for showing the public what he looks like. His image should not be run day after day, accompanying the follow-up stories.

Likewise, the media should refrain from giving the crime a catchy nickname. Refer to the crimes as the ‘Aurora movie killings’ or something similar – not ‘the Batman murders’.

Showing cellphone videos of the crime in progress will attract viewers, and therefore advertising dollars. It will also help incite other potential killers.

As much as possible, journalists should try to avoid making the killer’s name a household world … Always, the effort should be to deglamorise him.

‘Repeatedly showing us the face of a killer isn’t news; it’s just rubbernecking,’ sais Newswipe presenter Charlie Brooker. ‘This sort of coverage only serves to turn this murdering little twat into a sort of nihilistic pinup boy.’

The New York Times blog has run an excellent and sadly familiar piece about the, well, sadly familiar tone of the coverage. There is a template for reporting these things now – and unfortunately, it’s pretty much the mirror opposite of what sober and sensible behavioural experts recommend.

Fame and infamy ‘nearly identical’

It is a sad fact of contemporary news media practice that the bodies have to be stacked for murder to be truly newsworthy … The men who do these acts of mass murder know that they have to engage in a profound level of violence to stand out from the clutter. – New York Times

An award-winning in-depth article from almost 20 years ago, ‘Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media’, is being cited by those concerned about the issue. It’s lengthy, but well worth a look – particularly as it dates from the time before Columbine; before this kind of event became a regular occurrence.

The author has found examples of news articles on mass murders being conspicuously found in the possession of recently arrested copycat killers. He argues that while violent entertainment is often blamed for these events, the (more profound) effect of news coverage is more often ignored.

Fame and infamy are in an ethical sense, opposites. Functionally, they are nearly identical. Imagine an alien civilisation that does not share our notions of good and evil, studying the expanding shell of television signals emanating from our planet. To such extraterrestials, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler are both ‘famous’; without an ability to appreciate the vituperation our civilisation uses to describe Hitler, they might conclude that both were ‘great men’. Indeed, they might assume that Hitler was the ‘greater’ of the two, because there has certainly been more broadcast about Hitler than about Churchill.

For most people, he points out, it’s easier to become famous by being recognisably bad than by being recognisably good.

What role does the pursuit of fame – and attention – play in motivating these killers? And if it is centrally important, what happens when we answer their desires by broadcasting their names and faces around the world, repeatedly?

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