Criminology Prof. James Alan Fox appeals for smarter, responsible media coverage of mass shooters

By Chicago 7 Min Read

Media coverage of crime tends to have a strong element of voyeurism and sensationalism. The incentives are structured that way: attracting more eyeballs means more money, so that leads to questionable coverage. Whether it’s the Rolling Stone cover photo of one of the Boston bombers or the extensive coverage of the photogenic Ted Bundy, the behavior of the media has had this tendency forever.

The Second Amendment community has long contended that there is a copycat phenomenon to public mass shootings, and there’s some evidence that assailants want notoriety and are keeping track of each other’s sick “scoreboards.” That needs to change, not just to stop the media contagion, but also for the dignity of the victims. Northeastern University Professor James Alan Fox published an op-ed in USA Today (archived links) appealing for better media coverage:

Jacksonville shooting has already faded from memory. Victims deserve better from the media.
I watched the marathon coverage and was disturbed by the representation of the assailant as a powerful individual armed with a deadly weapon, a hero for like-minded hatemongers.

Before being replaced on the front pages of newspapers by Hurricane Idalia, the fatal shooting of three Black residents of Jacksonville, Florida, by a 21-year-old white supremacist dominated the news cycle for days – and for good reason. Although the death toll was not as high as large-scale shootings that have shocked us this year, the apparent hate motivation made it particularly newsworthy given the political climate.

The blanket coverage included surveillance video of the gunman aiming his “AR-style” rifle at defenseless victims outside and inside the Dollar General store. […]

I watched the clips and was indeed disturbed, but not in the sense that underscored the alert. The video did not show any of the victims, much less how they were killed. What I found disturbing was the representation of the assailant as a powerful individual armed with a deadly weapon, a hero for like-minded hatemongers. […]

Unlike a simple headshot, images of the shooter in action (as in the Jacksonville rampage) or menacing poses created by the assailant (such a photo of the Virginia Tech gunman brandishing weapons that was printed above the fold on the front page of The New York Times) are gratuitous. […]

Unfortunately, the news media sometimes crosses the line from reporting to celebrity watch. For example, coverage of the man who killed 60 and injured hundreds more at a Las Vegas outdoor concert in 2017 included his favorite casino games, his passion for karaoke and even what he ate on the night of the shooting. Such superfluous details did not help us understand the gunman’s motivation but only humanized an undeserving individual. […]

Flying drones and camera phones have also provided dramatic sights and sounds for cable news channels to fill hours of marathon coverage of dreadful shootings.

I agree with Prof. Fox that coverage is over the top. Once you’ve grabbed viewers’ attention with the horror, throw in an ad here and there, and voila! you just made hay while the sun shone.

Besides the revenue, there is a political agenda behind the coverage as well. The media absolutely wants gun control. You can see their bias in just about every article, in how they parrot loaded false phrases like “assault weapon,” manipulate statistics into a single “gun deaths” number, and quote gun control groups as if they’re dispassionate observers and purveyors of truth. There’s also overt political coverage like what we saw on the front page of The Daily Tar Heel in the aftermath of the murder of a professor, or if you want to dial the clock back a few years, the obnoxious CNN “Town Hall” after Parkland.

There are some parts of Prof. Fox’s op-ed that I’m ambivalent about. While there is value in knowing the identity of the assailant, the headshot is questionable and so is the motivation, because I tend to think of those as fuel for copycats with their stupid grievances. For the gun rights side, it is valuable to know about the weaponry because it helps us rebut demands for more gun control, but I’m still hesitant about releasing too much information for copycats.

Prof. Fox thinks that “manifestos” shouldn’t be publicized for a good reason:

It has become common for killers, both the political and pathological, to post online an explanation for their planned acts of violence. They want us to know that there was a bonafide reason for murder – by their way of thinking, it is justifiable homicide. They do not wish to be remembered as just some nut who killed innocent strangers for no good reason.

Recently, I pointed out how TN Gov. Bill Lee was looking to pass gun control legislation without understanding the motive which was buried in the assailant’s writings. I stand by that because I see it as completely hypocritical that every white supremacist’s ramblings are quickly released, but the Covenant School attacker’s was intentionally buried.

The media changed how it covered suicide a long time ago and it’s time they adopt similar guidelines for mass shootings as well.

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