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The Media Need to Think Twice About How They Portray Mass Shooters

March 12, 2018 in Blogs

By Russell Frank, The Conversation

Avoid specifying the killer’s choice of weapons or quoting his writings or utterances.

The lead story on the New York Times homepage provided the overview of the latest massacre at an American school: “17 Killed at Florida School; Toll May Climb.”

A “sidebar,” or secondary story, also on the homepage, bore this headline: “Here’s What We Know About the Suspect.”

In a similar vein, the Washington Post ran a story with the headline, “Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz: Guns, depression and a life in trouble.”

The stories tell of a troubled kid who liked weapons, threatened classmates and was cruel to animals. They also feature photos of the suspect: an extreme closeup in the Washington Post, and in The New York Times a screenshot from his Instagram account that shows him brandishing a gun.

There’s no question that we are deeply curious about those who commit crimes. Our literary tradition, from the myths and tales of the ancient world, to Shakespeare, to Dostoevsky, to the latest police procedural on Netflix, indicates that we have always been fascinated by “the criminal mind,” which is, after all, not so different from our own minds. But, as a former reporter and editor who studies the media and who teaches journalism ethics, I ask the question: Can stoking this fascination cause harm?

Obsession with deviance

Who among us, after all, has not at least fantasized about inflicting bodily harm on an enemy or taking what did not belong to us? At least two considerations constrain us: law and custom. The threat of punishment and the moral injunctions against crimes against persons and property are such compelling reasons to stick to the straight and narrow that we marvel at those who stray.

So the journalistic impulse to learn what we can about a mass murderer by interviewing acquaintances and combing through his social media accounts is understandable. The question that arises with every mass shooting is whether these instant illustrated profiles of the killers do more harm than good.

Might all that attention inspire a similarly deranged person to commit a “copycat” crime? Might the photos in particular, especially …read more


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