The country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings prompt all-too-familiar debates. Gun control, treatment for mental illness, terrorism, security precautions.
For media critics, the debate pertains to the proper treatment of the perpetrators of mass shootings. There have been many of them, of course — in this past week alone, there have been six instances aside from Sunday night’s Las Vegas massacre, which killed at least 59 and left some 500 wounded. That level of carnage has enabled research: A paper out of Arizona State University, for example, found “significant evidence of contagion in mass killings and school shootings.”
Sherry Towers, a scholar at Arizona State University, noted that the perpetrator of the shootings at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in 2015 had praised the perpetrator of the Virginia killings of two local broadcast television staffers months earlier. “With a disease, you usually need close contact to spread it to someone else,” Towers said. “In this case, the news media act as a ‘vector’ that can transmit the infection across a very large area. The people who are susceptible to ideation to commit these terrible acts are quite rare in the population … that’s why it appears that it takes a lot of media coverage over a wide geographic area for this kind of contagion to take place.”
Guidelines and pleas have surged from the research. No Notoriety, a group that focuses on media coverage of mass killings, calls on the media to “limit” the name and images of a shooter, save for instances where the suspect is at large. Also, the group asks that news outlets “refuse to broadcast/publish self-serving statements, photos, videos and/or manifestos made by the individual. Elevate the names and likenesses of all victims killed and/or injured to send the message their lives are more important than the killer’s actions.”
That general approach has its fans in cable news. CNN host Anderson Cooper, for one, declines to name or show images of mass shooters in his broadcasts. When she was at Fox News, Megyn Kelly, now of NBC News, pursued a similar approach. Mark Follman of Mother Jones has issued guidance on how to minimize the threat of copycatting. And Zeynep Tufekci, a writer for the New York Times, has spread this imperative all over Twitter:
Is there true news value to detailed profile of one more shooter beyond the two sentence summary? From step-by-step playback of mass murder?
— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) October 2, 2017
Are the cable-news networks following these requests? Not precisely. On Monday, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all covered the creeping revelations about shooter Stephen Paddock, of Mesquite, Nev., as they emerged. As always, the bio of a mass murderer came into focus haltingly. An unsupported claim from Islamic State communication outlets insisted that Paddock, 64, was acting on its behalf — and some news outlets passed along the information, as CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out. The shooter’s motive was unclear, reported the New York Times. A Washington Post article noted that Paddock’s father was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Just about everyone reporting on the incident passed along comments from Eric Paddock, the killer’s brother, who said that Stephen Paddock was a high-stakes video poker player and had loose cash to throw around.
At the top of the 1 p.m. hour, CNN filled in some of the gaps. “As far as we know, what they have found is just an average home. They are trying to put the pieces together, Wolf, to figure out exactly what may have motivated the senior citizen to unleash this, sort of, terror in Las Vegas,” said CNN correspondent Kyung Lah to anchor Wolf Blitzer. “But they have been able — what we’ve been able to piece together, from relatives and people here in the community, is that he did have a pilot’s license. A license that was no longer valid because a medical certification had lapsed. He had a hunting license in Alaska. He was an accountant. He didn’t have any children. He is divorced but he had a live-in girlfriend.” As CNN pursued the story throughout the afternoon, it occasionally flashed a photo of Paddock on the screen.
A source familiar with MSNBC’s work on the Las Vegas story told the Erik Wemple Blog around 3 p.m. Monday that the network was using the photo about seven times per hour after its release. Fox News didn’t answer questions about the matter, though our glimpses at the cable-news coverage throughout the day didn’t spot too much use of Paddock’s likeness. “There’s so much we don’t know about Stephen Paddock, but they’re trying to find out a lot as we speak, going back to his condo, going back to his past, going back to his family members, to find out what, if anything, could determine a motive,” said Fox News host Neil Cavuto.
And that pretty neatly sums up the deal: News organizations dig into these matters to answer that basic question — why? — for their audiences. Some folks insist they don’t want to know much about the shooter. Following the Aurora, Colo., shooting of 2012, then-CNN media correspondent Howard Kurtz said, “I don’t care about whether he was disappointed in school. I don’t want psychological studies of him, because anybody who shoots up a movie theater with men, women and children is crazy — is so much of a sociopath that, I think, it’s almost fruitless for us to figure out, well, what was it about it that made him snap.”
On his program Monday night, Cooper extended his policy regarding mass shooters. He devoted time to touching capsule bios of several victims at the top of the 9 p.m. hour. “Neysa Tonks,” said Cooper, “lived in Las Vegas, worked at a local technology company. She leaves behind three sons: Kaden, Braxton and Greysen. … One name we won’t be saying tonight and one photo we will not be showing belongs to the killer. We will, however, look at everything that authorities are learning about everything that happened — everything they know about the killer.”
Over the course of the hour, Cooper provided a balanced report on developments in Las Vegas, interviewing victims, discussing the work of first responders in finding the shooter at his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, addressing the blood drive, citing the work of heroes as well as delving into the shooter’s possible motives. Again, he addressed the ethics of such coverage: “We’re neither saying the killer’s name nor showing his picture. Mass killers deserve no such publicity. They do, however, deserve any scrutiny that might help us all understand how to prevent the next tragedy.”
No Notoriety praised Cooper’s work:
— NoNotoriety (@NoNotoriety) October 3, 2017
Cooper’s motives are noble and his discipline admirable. Yet the demands of the Las Vegas massacre dominated his 9 p.m. hour, with just a sliver of news from Puerto Rico sneaking in at the end. Such wall-to-wall coverage will likely last for the next day or two, as the authorities continue their investigation and more heartbreaking stories emerge from the tragedy. There’s so much volume that withholding names and photos has a tinkering-around-the-margins feel. Who knows — could it be that the next deranged killer will draw comfort from the notion that certain media outlets will take special precautions not to say his name?