In less than a week, there have been two major shootings that hit the news. One in France, the other in the states… and one huge difference in news coverage. In the French incident, almost all of the coverage was on the heroes who intervened to save what was likely over a dozen lives, with many articles not mentioning the shooters name even once. In the US shooting, every major news site not only names the shooter, but has his face on the front page. Acknowledging that this one hits close to home since both the shooter and the victims were journalists, it begs an important question. Why give any murderer the notoriety he or she seeks? In each of the school shootings over the last two years, the focus of every story was the shooter, with the tiniest portion covering the impact or prevention measures.
It is widely established that perpetrators of these horrific acts are motivated by legacy. Their lives often feel meaningless, and they need something to be remembered for. With the intensity of media coverage and the 24 hour news cycle, journalists and reporters will go into extraneous detail on every aspect of a shooter’s life. Providing a step by step instruction manual to would be shooters. Think about it. Imagine a loner sitting at home, feeling no purpose, possibly abused or chemically imbalanced. He sees the coverage a movie theater shooting, and a man with orange hair in a similar colored jumpsuit is on every channel, news site, and social media outlet. This guy is thinking, “people will remember <I’m not mentioning the coward’s name>”. Not too far in the future he sees a guy (not mentioning name again) on the news who shoots three Muslim students, followed by weeks of coverage of his Atheism. Not only providing a platform for this coward’s thoughtless violence, but fueling tensions among Muslims and Atheists.
Here’s what I can’t understand. If someone created and used a highly innovative, effective bomb that killed hundreds, no one would tolerate any media channel providing instructions on how to make that bomb. Yet we continue to support outlets that egregiously promote the key motivator for mass shooters, their name. I am fully cognizant of the need for free press, and the responsibility to give us all relevant information. Any filtering creates a precedent and environment for the overstepping of government power. In a free, capitalist system, the only way to affect change is to impact the revenue. And while people would love to believe in journalistic integrity, clicks and television ratings highly influence how a story is told. As an example, Fox News referred to the “Public Option” of the Affordable Care Act as the “Government Option” because Republicans told them the word “government” invokes more ire in their supporters. Which also happens to get higher ratings and more clicks.
In other words, the only way to change the behavior of the media, and (more importantly) reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, is to give them the motivation. Something that will incentivize them with revenue and create a positive outcome. I have a simple solution. We start a campaign called #coward. The intention is to tell the media that we don’t need the name of the shooter, a simple Coward 1, Coward 2 and so on will do. And when that moniker is in the link or subtext, we click that story instead of another with the shooter’s name. And while it sounds ideological, and possibly hokey, it is all in the positioning. Let’s assume that each article covering a shooting that includes the perpetrator’s name is a grain of sand. Each time the story is watched or read, a grain of sand goes into a jar. When the jar is full, a mass shooting happens. Would you ever voluntarily put that grain of sand in the jar?
We live in an age of free information. Anyone who wants to know the name of a criminal can find it easily enough with a quick Google search. There is no filtering bias when the information is already in the public domain, and zero benefit in providing notoriety to a sociopath motivated by notoriety when the information is widely available already. So let’s send the collective media a message that Coward X will do, and we’ll not only read your story, we’ll share it with #coward. There will always be organizations that dive into the sewer to be provocative, we can’t change everything. But we can be the example for others to follow. We can create an environment of self imposed, responsible journalism by being responsible consumers. So the next time an atrocity occurs, ask yourself if you really need to read the article with a picture of an orange haired prisoner whose name I still won’t mention… or if you should contemplate how far that jar is filled already. It’s just one grain of sand…