When shocking deaths and murders are front and centre - the deaths of gay men in Toronto by an alleged serial killer or yet another school shooting in the United States - the media perform an important service.
Its job is to question the authorities: Why haven’t the Toronto police taken advantage of an RCMP database inspired by investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women?
Why was there not a missing persons co-ordinator who might have noticed the number of men who disappeared from Toronto’s gay village? In Florida, how and why did the FBI not follow up on the warning signs and tips?
But the media are not exempt from some of the questioning in the aftermath of mass shootings.
A reader on Twitter addressed major Canadian and U.S. media outlets, including The Globe and Mail, saying: “Do not name the perpetrator, do not use photos ... of the perpetrator or past perpetrators.”
This seems to follow on a theory that, since mass shooters want attention, media attention can encourage copycat killings.
Last Saturday’s essay by Jennifer Johnston, assistant professor of Western New Mexico University, argues this point.
She notes a study by mathematician Sherry Towers, who found that over the past 15 years, mass shootings have been found to occur in small clusters, suggesting they are “contagious.”
Prof. Johnston argues that news programs should tone down the emotional content in order to avoid this contagion. She wrote that “news organizations should [show] restraint; delay, respect victims and their families; no names, no faces of shooters.
Doing this, we can also deny mass shooters one of their primary motivations: fame. Journalists need to leave the profiling to police.”
I believe, like others, that there are more important causal factors at play, such as gun-control laws and the number and type of guns available. A New York Times investigation compared the United States with other western countries, including Canada, and said that while some blamed America’s lack of proper mental-health care, or wondered if it was a more crimeprone society, “though seemingly sensible, all [these hypotheses] have been debunked by research on shootings elsewhere in the world. ... The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”
Apart from this type of factbased reporting, what is the media’s role and responsibility? I agree with restraint. Killers and killings shouldn’t be glorified with photos of assault-weapontoting young men. The impact of their actions should instead be highlighted, by showing those who lost their lives and scenes of devastation. The accused should appear preferably as a mugshot or in handcuffs or a prison jumpsuit. The Globe’s coverage included all these photos along with stories and photos of the heroes who protected others.
The media should not shirk from important details which may upset some. If people aren’t upset, they become apathetic and silent, and silence has never served any good in the long run.
People should know the alleged person’s name and their motivation in a factual way.
There should be no gratuitous descriptions of violence or death.
We need to see that violence is not a video game, but drives horrific acts that kill innocent people and ruin the lives of so many.
Prof. Johnston argued in her Globe opinion piece that the Florida coverage has been egregious, with graphic and disturbing coverage accessible after clicking through a graphic-content warning. But I think some graphic and disturbing details can change the way we think. I remember two very powerful and horrific photos published in the past about two other school shootings.
One was at Kent State University in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on Vietnam War protesters, killing four university students. One shocking photo showed a young women wailing in anguish over the prone body of a young man.
The other was in this country.
In 1989, at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, a man separated female engineering students from the men and killed 14 women. I can still see, in my mind, a photo taken after the massacre which ran in many newspapers. It showed an obviously dead young woman slumped backward in her chair in the school cafeteria while a police detective retracing the killer’s steps touched a festive holiday banner slung above a door.
How can or would society make changes if these incidents are not reported and explored?
Those who want no mention of those alleged perpetrators also lump all the media in the same boat, wanting everyone to ban this coverage. But taken to its extreme, if the media writ large stopped mentioning the alleged killers, doesn’t that just drive the curious to more dubious sites, which repeat rumours with no effort to verify. The idea of restricting such content would have been easier a decade ago when there were very few major media outlets. Today, so much misinformation gets created, shared and believed on social media. Is it not better to report fully with restraint and care toward the victims?