America has entered a new age of mass shootings. Every few weeks — or hours, in the case of El Paso and Dayton — a young man with a gun commits an atrocity. And every time it happens, news media are there to relentlessly cover the aftermath. Each new detail — a killer’s name, a photograph — becomes a prize in the frenzied effort to obtain and confirm the next.
We do this, in part, because it’s our job. The public wants to know what happened and why. They want to know more about the person capable of carrying out such a heinous act. As journalists, we try to meet our audiences’ needs for information. And with competition for attention so intense, we’re reluctant to forego even the smallest developments in a big, breaking story.
But our approach also stems from the fact that the news industry hasn’t seriously reckoned with its responsibility to cover mass shootings with the discretion they require. If we don’t change that soon, we risk further contributing to the uniquely American crisis of mass killings.
Research increasingly tells us that our coverage of mass shootings has implications for public health. Shooters crave attention and infamy; several modern killers have idolized and sought out information about those who came before them. One murderer mailed videos and documents to a national news station, knowing that the materials would be publicized. Another kept a spreadsheet in which he compared body counts from previous high-profile shootings.
Coverage that puts killers in the spotlight makes an implicit promise to those on the edge of committing mass violence. Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama who has studied the contagion effect of mass shootings, puts it like this: “Many of these at-risk individuals recognize that murdering large numbers of men, women, or children will guarantee them fame. They believe their names and faces will adorn newspapers, television, magazines, and the internet — and unfortunately, they are right.”
News outlets are aware of the hazards involved. On Twitter and in op-eds, at conferences and over after-work drinks, journalists acknowledge that we can do better. Some high-profile members of the industry, such as Anderson Cooper, have been persuaded by the evidence and refuse to name mass shooters or show their images. Many more writers, editors, and producers make the same decisions out of the spotlight every day. But for comprehensive, institutional change to occur, America’s major news organizations must publicly acknowledge that there is a problem and pledge to correct it.
The Trace, in partnership with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, is committed to finding a way to keep the public informed about mass shootings without compromising public safety. Over the coming months, our coalition will work with researchers and media professionals who study the phenomenon of mass-shooting contagion to paint a fuller picture of the problem. Along with news organizations across the country, we will develop a set of guidelines for responsible reporting on mass shooters and their motives. Once we release those guidelines, we will urge news organizations to publicly ratify them, formalizing a set of industry best practices.
At this stage, it’s premature to spell out what such guidelines will look like. But we want to be transparent about what we’re thinking. We expect that the process may steer us to a set of recommendations that will advise against naming perpetrators except in rare circumstances. The same goes for the publication of photographs, videos, and audio of shooters, as well as any materials produced by them. In the end, we expect our ask to be simple: Media organizations ought to stop and consider in the post-mass shooting news rush what their stories should focus on, and bear in mind whom those stories serve. The idea isn’t to stifle coverage, but to ensure that as an industry we are being responsible in the work that we produce under extreme circumstances.
Versions of this project have been tried before. There have been efforts to reform media coverage of mass shootings, driven largely by law enforcement and survivor groups. Their voices are important; still, journalists are best positioned to arrive at reforms that balance our missions with the public good. Our obligation to cover mass shootings and their perpetrators thoroughly must also reduce the contagion risk and mitigate the harm we may be inflicting. In our profession, we measure success by the impact our work has on the world, whether in attitude or policy changes. Our work should not contribute to the country’s accelerating scourge of mass killings, driven by young men with firearms seeking fame and recognition.
If you or your newsroom would like to join the project, please be in touch here.