#NeverAgain: why media coverage on mass shooters is problematic

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Seventeen people dead.

Feb. 14, 2018.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Parkland, Florida.

An otherwise ordinary day has since been marred by tragedy as yet another mass shooting unfolded in America, leaving 17 dead and a community changed forever.

Once again, there is a chorus of people calling for change to ensure the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas is the last.

And once again, I, like many others, am a part of that chorus.

There are a slew of cultural and societal problems precipitating mass shootings that still need to be addressed. One of the most obvious problems is access to firearms, particularly assault rifles and high-power guns, and common-sense legislation such as background checks and permit-to-purchase programs are long overdue.

As has happened too many times before, the same debates about gun control legislation are being waged and finger-pointing abounds between Democrats and Republicans. Meanwhile, politicians whose pockets are lined with National Rifle Association (NRA) money call for thoughts and prayers and are mum on the debate or deflect blame.

Ending mass shootings specifically and gun violence more generally requires a series of interconnected social, cultural and legislative changes, and I’m unable to provide all of those solutions.

But as a journalist, I feel one important, overlooked problem within this conversation is the way news outlets cover mass shootings.

Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week, the stories filling the air time and print space of news organizations have more or less stuck to a familiar script.

As was the case with Aurora, Newtown, Orlando, Charleston and Las Vegas, among other mass shootings, the coverage of Parkland has included profile piece after profile piece broadcasting the shooter’s name and face while examining his background and potential motives.

And the attempts at explaining the inexplicable particularly those that characterized the shooter as a troubled, lone-wolf figure have consciously and subconsciously sought to humanize and excuse an individual who killed 17 people and injured more within the span of a few minutes.

Additionally, the reports emphasizing his history of depression feed into pervasive, dangerous myths about a causal link between mental illness and violence that harm an already marginalized community. Automatically attributing the killer’s actions to mental illness also stands in the way of deeper analysis about gun laws and socio-cultural factors such as a history of misogynistic violence as well as racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic views  that enabled his actions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There doesn’t have to be a perverse fixation on the individuals behind these violent acts. To dedicate print space or airtime to broadcasting a gunman’s name, face and any notes left for the public is to give these individuals a platform and cement their infamy within the human psyche.

Narrative and perspective are everything. And we as journalists should accept the No Notoriety challenge started in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting that encourages the media to limit details given about killers.  

We as media outlets don’t need to share the killer’s name. We don’t need to show his face. We don’t need to delve into his background.

This is especially important during the initial reports about mass shootings when the events are freshest in people’s minds and widespread attention is at its peak.

That said, as the days wear on and we approach the end of the first week since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it is clear the focus of media attention is shifting. And this change is due to none other than the brave student survivors who seek to control their narrative as they quickly mobilize to turn their grief into action.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have given speeches and launched the #NeverAgain movement to stop gun violence and prevent future mass shootings. The protests of these teenagers inspired solidarity rallies and walkouts across the country, from the recent “die-in” in Washington, D.C., to the nearly 12-mile march West Boca Raton High School students took to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Teenagers also organized a trip to Tallahassee to lobby the legislature and are planning the National School Walkouts on March 14 and April 20 as well as the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. on March 24.

I am inspired in a tragic sense as members of my generation fight to control the narrative  even if the rest of society has a lot of catching up to do. As more and more youth find their voices as grassroots organizers and force people the world over to pay attention, I hope our elders and leaders listen and take action or get out of the way of progress.

Image courtesy of Pexels.com