On Friday 14th December a lone gunman opened fire in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the second worst school shooting in United States history – 26 people were killed. The tragedy of this story is relentless but differs from other school shootings in an important way; most of those who died were very young children.
This article, however, is not solely about the events of last Friday. As more pundits all over the world line up to give opinions on major news channels, one important issue is being missed. The question of why school shootings have propagated has a variety of answers in the mainstream media; gun control and mental health to name but a few.
To me the answer also lies with the media itself.
As with most coverage we receive daily, it fits into a pre-established narrative. But this narrative is far more dangerous in propagating these shootings. In a 2009 interview with BBC’s Newsnight, Dr Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist told the media what he has been telling them for years.
Dr Dietz believes that the media are at the heart of propagating these shootings through their coverage, in effect encouraging copy-cat killers. There were 6 simple points made; 1 – Do not start the story with blaring sirens; 2- Do not show photographs of the killer and detail their life; 3- Do not make it 24/7 coverage; 4- Do not make the body count the lead story; 5- Do not make the killer some kind of anti-hero; 6 – Localise the story and make it as boring as possible for general coverage. The media have ignored all these points when covering the Newtown Shooting.
The blow by blow coverage of tragic events such as these reinforces the idea that a story such as this will get days of global attention, immortalising the individual who committed the act. If Dr. Dietz is correct in his analysis, and such coverage may lead to similar violent acts, then it falls to the news media to make small changes to assist in preventing such shootings.
Of course, the issue of regulating assault weapons has been thrust into the fray, and rightly so. It is, however, also important to consider that the Newtown shooting in its proper context. A young man who resented both his mother and the children she taught expressed it in an act of brutality. It may not have been that this individual sought infamy, but it is beyond question that news coverage has again produced a negative result.
In effect the discussion of ‘press ethics’ recently in the UK has missed the more nuanced ways the media act with impunity as unelected bodies. Whether it be dispensing medical advice in tabloids or reinforcing narratives around killers, it may be time to question how much the mainstream news sensationalise events leading to further negative consequences. One such consequence of the coverage of the Newtown shooting was a young schoolboy found with a gun that his parent encouraged him to take to class.
BY: Sam Wood