When Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 to shoot and kill 26 people, 20 of them grade school children, investigators wasted no time. Before the end of that day, they ran a search of the car he had left behind in the parking lot to find that it had been registered to a Nancy Lanza, of 36 Yogananda St. in Newtown. A search warrant issued and signed by a Supreme Court judge that evening allowed them inside the house, where they found Nancy’s body, among other incriminating pieces of evidence.
A lengthy report released by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Danbury, Conn. in November 2013, nearly a year after the shootings, detailed the search of Adam Lanza’s room and what was found. Establishing a motive for the attack was inconclusive; however, several items that were found “revealed that the shooter had a preoccupation with mass shootings, in particular the Columbine shootings, and a strong interest in firearms.” For example, several photocopied newspaper articles about school shootings dating back to 1891 were found, as well as a 2008 New York Times article about the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University. Lanza even had a spreadsheet saved on his computer of several mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the years, detailing information about each one.
As the day went on, the news media had to make decisions of their own in delivering the next edition of the newspaper or the next live broadcast to their audiences. The shooting was such a heinous and unprecedented act – 20 children and their teachers murdered in their own elementary school classrooms – that so many different ethical questions come into play for those trying to report the story. The fact that Lanza left behind evidence that he had been following news coverage of previous mass shootings only makes it more difficult.
Even in other recent shootings across the country, the news media becomes part of the story, either because they received material directly from the shooter himself, or because the shooter cited past incidents that were covered extensively by journalists.
As 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho was carrying out what would become known as the Virginia Tech Massacre in April 2007, he mailed several manifestos in the form of writings and videos to NBC News, detailing his motives. Several pieces of the footage aired during NBC’s broadcast after the manifestos were received.
Minutes before Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, Calif. in May 2014, he emailed a 137-page manifesto to several of his friends and family detailing his plans, and subsequently uploaded a video on YouTube in which he spoke of similar plans on camera. The complete written manifesto was obtained by ABC News just days after the shooting and much of the footage on the YouTube video aired on several national news stations in snippets.
And as investigators ran reverse web lookups of Dylann Storm Roof after he was arrested and charged with murdering nine people at a historic church in Charleston, S.C. last June, they found evidence that Roof had been influenced by the media coverage of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death to “start a race war.”
How news organizations respond to mass shootings doesn’t seem to always be effective; in fact, it can even seem encouraging to future perpetrators who follow the coverage. Journalists are often relentless in going to great lengths to attempt to uncover a motive for the shooter, which almost seems like it could be a justification. They interview friends and family members, they review existing criminal records, they look into the shooter’s mental health history and access to guns. All of the focus in the immediate days following a shooting is on the shooter, because journalists want to give the public answers for why this happened.
But no set of guidelines seem to be apparent in this sort of news gathering. For every type of news organization (local, regional or national, or print, television or online), it seems to be one big free for all in getting as much information as possible and then deciding what to do with all of it. Journalists would do well in minimizing harm if they had a rough set of guidelines to follow when covering a mass shooting, which is definitely a newsworthy event, but one that should be handled with caution at best.
Consider an official set of guidelines that do exist, however, for another issue that has been controversial in media coverage in the past: suicide. In the late 1980s, several mental health associations (such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others) have signed off on this document, alerting members of the media directly on how they feel stories of suicide should be presented. While they acknowledge that suicide can definitely be a newsworthy subject to be covered, they argue that it also has the potential to cause harm. These organizations are most concerned about the idea of “copycat syndrome,” or in other words, repeated and increased cases of suicide that may be a partial result of the subject being influenced by someone else who appeared extensively in the newspapers or on television because they committed the same act. They reported that there is “an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when…the number of stories about individual suicides increases…(or) a particular death is reported at length or in many stories…(or) the story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast…(or) the headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic.” Several suggestions are provided in the rest of the document to journalists, which encourage them that they agree that suicide should be covered, but that it should be with much caution. They include many of the positive ways that it can be portrayed, through ways such as trends, warning signs and treatment methods. The overall point, they say, is to create coverage that helps prevent future cases, rather than increase them.
In cases of mass shootings involving multiple victims, these guidelines wouldn’t be all that much different. A recent Mother Jones investigation organized a spreadsheet detailing facts about every mass shooting in the United States in which at least five people were killed since 1982 (the most recent being the July 2015 shooting at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tenn.). This report found that of the 81 shooters examined, 43 of them (or 53 percent) expressed either a history of or signs of mental illness prior to the shooting. This does not include the 11 others in which the signs were either “unknown” or “unclear,” so that actual number could be higher.
A shooting can occur anywhere in the United States, and news of it would still likely show up on a majority of front pages in the newspaper or the lead story in many television broadcasts, local or regional. It’s certainly a newsworthy event that would deserve that spot in a news package, but it’s difficult to determine how far to go is too far. This study will attempt to list a set of guidelines for three different types of media coverage, using aforementioned cases as studies for what the best possible tactics are in reporting on a mass shooting, as well as a short list of suggestions that all types of media organizations should uphold. The objective is to minimize as much harm as possible, while still remaining, truthful and fair to one’s audience.
Local covering local
Perhaps local media that either routinely cover the town or city in which a mass shooting occurs or a region nearby should have the most free rein in covering such stories. After all, they have the best access to official documents in sources, they can easily send reporters and photographers to the scene of the shooting and interview witnesses, friends or family members, and they can delve deep into the history of gun control and/or mental health programs in their own community. Unlike media in other parts of the country, these platforms do not have to rely on the Associated Press or other wire services to obtain their information.
In the case of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a newspaper such as the Hartford Courant suddenly became tasked with such a big story to cover – what would unprecedentedly become the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single individual in United States history. The Courant is the largest daily newspaper in the state of Connecticut, and the shooting occurred less than 50 miles (or about an hour’s drive) from its offices. This gave the paper a great opportunity for fair, truthful, accurate and detailed coverage; how they were going to do this without any criticism, however, would be challenging.
The Courant has a photo gallery of 21 different front page editions it ran in which Sandy Hook is mentioned in the several days following the shooting. Although Adam Lanza’s name appears several times (to alert readers that this was the man who caused this), not one of them features a photo of him. Instead, several photos of the victims and their family members are depicted in what are perhaps their darkest moments. However, these photos only appear in the first few front pages, and diminish dramatically as the weeks go by and the community of Newtown starts to process and heal from the tragedy. The Courant’s front page from Dec. 17, 2012 lists all of the names of the victims in alphabetical order with corresponding photographs. They even decided to include Lanza’s mother Nancy to show that she too was a victim, despite reports that Lanza had access to guns because of her. The headline “They Are All Our Children” gives readers a reminder that the victims should never be forgotten. The stories in the adjacent columns, one vowing that police presence in schools will be increased and the other advocating to address gun violence, each attempt to give readers glimmers of hope in the steps taken to prevent another tragedy such as this.
The Courant eventually would place Adam Lanza on the front page, most notably in a detailed package titled “Raising Adam Lanza” that was run on Feb. 17, 2013. Two months had passed since the shooting, and the overall shock of the incident had diminished at least a little bit. This was when the Courant decided to show its findings of Lanza’s history of mental health, family life and access to guns. The manner in which it did so was inviting, not necessarily enticing; although it was on the front page, the actual report doesn’t begin until page A8 of that edition, so readers had to make a conscious decision to turn to that page if they wanted to or were ready to read about it.
Proposed guidelines for local media covering a mass shooting in their own community
- In the immediate aftermath, do not focus on enticing or villainous photos of the shooter. Instead, identify each of the victims and celebrate their memories through feature stories and memorial photos. If photos of victims crying, embracing each other, etc. must be used, it shouldn’t go beyond the first day or two of the initial incident.
- Include coverage of what should be done to prevent this from happening again (ex: what lengths police departments and government officials are going to in response to a shooting).
- Wait for a little bit of time to go by for the community to heal before you start focusing deeply on the shooter, his motives, etc.
Local or regional covering a shooting elsewhere
Media organizations in other parts of the country that want to cover a mass shooting that does not occur in their community often have to rely on wire services to initially report the event. They cannot investigate who the victims were as easily as the local media covering their own community and instead turn to the profile of the shooter. In some cases, they even begin to associate a shooter with a certain quality that will end up sticking in the minds of readers forever.
James Eagan Holmes interrupted a midnight showing of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater on July 20, 2012, opening fire and killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. After police apprehended him, it was widely reported that Holmes had told them he was “The Joker,” an allusion to the popular villain in the Batman series.
Several news organizations (none of them based in Colorado, keep in mind) ran with this image in their initial reporting of the shooting, borderline mocking Holmes. The New York Post ran the headline “Darkest Night,” the U.K.’s The Daily Star called Holmes the “Batman Nut,” and The Sun, also in the U.K., called him the “Batman Madman,” just to name a few examples.
After the initial reporting of the shooting itself, media organizations that largely had to have relied on the Associated Press or other wire services may try to localize the story in their continued coverage. Such techniques can include anything from interviewing their own professional local sources about how these incidents should be prevented in the future to interviewing them about what their own community is doing to improve their security in the wake of what occurred in another part of the country and its extensive coverage. This would likely involve combining information from wire sources with a media organization’s own material to in a way “make it its own,” something that should be done with caution as it could have the potential to distort the truth of the actual event.
In more focused cases, perhaps the best way of localizing such a story is if a victim of such a shooting happened to originally be from a different part of the country that these media do serve. Take the recent shooting at a military base in Chattanooga, Tenn. as an example. Because one of the victims was a native of Springfield, Mass., media organizations based in the Greater Springfield area, along with those that covered the entire New England region, saw this is a great opportunity for their own original and effective coverage. The funeral arrangements for Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40, of Springfield, were covered extensively by MassLive, The Boston Globe, and other nearby media. This story reported and written by Conor Berry of MassLive is a good example of how a national story or issue can become an even more important one right outside one’s window.
Proposed guidelines for media in other regions who want to cover a mass shooting in another part of the country (or the world)
- Initially report the story with the help of the Associated Press or another wire service, because that’s usually all that would immediately be available.
- The shooter should not be glorified on the front page or associated with something that readers will never forget, because it makes it that much harder to remember the names or faces of the victims.
- Localizing such a story is not always a good idea, because combining original copy with that of a wire source can inadvertently distort the truth. However, if a victim happened to be from an area this type of media covers, it does create opportunities to give readers or viewers a “close to home” feel, reminding them to always be vigilant and to be aware that this can happen pretty much anywhere, and to anybody.
Wall-to-wall media coverage of shootings
Media organizations such as CNN and MSNBC perhaps face the most challenges in covering mass shootings. They’re known to give “wall-to-wall” coverage of newsworthy events. In other words, they have so much airtime to work with that they attempt to cover every possible ground of something. This coverage can go on for days, even weeks, after the event was initially reported. They go to great lengths to present viewers with footage of press conferences, they interview official and expert sources about their opinions, they present raw video that may exist, they get witnesses on the phone to be interviewed on the air, and so on. There is a lot of opportunity here to put just as much focus on the victims as on the shooter, but because there seems to be an initial obsession with coming to a conclusion, the shooter is often given most of the airtime.
Using the June 2015 shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. as an example, CNN was all over this story from the start. Their multimedia package contains a timeline of several short videos that each discuss a specific area of the incident, which is followed by a written version of the entire coverage not too far below. On the right hand column are several thumbnail images of links to other areas of the overall story, for readers to click upon for more information. Ten of the 13 videos in the timeline and three of the seven thumbnail links pin the alleged shooter Dylann Storm Roof as the focus, rather than the victims or those in the community affected.
In contrast, there should be airtime given to focus on what the steps need to be to prevent this from happening in the future, rather than giving so much attention to the shooter. The story of the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina a good example of such an event that was covered. It was an example of something good that at least came out of something tragic, because the shooting reignited conversations about the Confederate flag being viewed as a symbol of racism.
Proposed guidelines for media organizations engaged in “wall-to-wall” coverage of mass shootings (reporting on every facet possible about the incident)
- There should be more of a balance in focus between the shooter and the victims.
- This should be a great way for media organizations to provide the public with information from official sources and experts to weigh in on what to do about the prevention of future shootings.
- There should be as much coverage as possible on the good things that can actually come out of mass shootings (such as the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina in the wake of the Charleston shooting).
ALL media responding to a mass shooting
Because of the revolution of the digital age of media, there are certain aspects in covering mass shootings that all media organizations should follow. Those who are not local may not have immediate access to local records, but with an Internet connection, can easily find official data pertaining to the ethical issues that arise whenever a mass shooting takes place. Any media organization can research what the status of mental health funding or what the current gun legislation is in a particular area in which a mass shooting occurs, and should be included in any type of coverage that calls for preventing future acts.
In terms of putting more focus on victims, at least a couple of recent cases come to mind in which a victim includes a public official or someone well-known outside the immediate vicinity of their community. Jared Lee Loughner admitted that he targeted former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. on Jan. 8, 2011, but he also ended up killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl. Giffords survived, and much of the coverage was focused on her road to recovery, but her identity as a public official should not overshadow the identities of the other six victims who did not survive. Another recent example is South Carolina Senator Clementa Pinckney, among the nine victims killed by Dylann Storm Roof in the Charleston church shooting. All journalists should take caution in mentioning victims of the shooting, and should recognize that every life lost is an equal tragedy. The coverage should not always read as “several shot, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords” or “nine people killed, including South Carolina Senator Clementa Pinckney.”
As for presenting audiences with possible motives as to why the shooter did what he did, so many answers come out in the form of manifestos written or filmed by the shooters themselves, as mentioned previously in the cases of Seung-Hui Cho, Elliot Rodger and Dylann Storm Roof. The Internet revolution also allows journalists to present this information in a variety of ways, including only in essential pieces or making it entirely available. They should hide particularly offensive or graphic parts of each manifesto behind links that users must consciously click on if they are interested in viewing or reading it. If such material should be used in print, it shouldn’t be on the front page or near the front of the newspaper; rather, on a page warning the reader before they turn to it. These are ways that still provide the public with the information, but not in ways that they cannot escape from. It’s a dividing line between what the public needs to know versus what they may be curious about.
Proposed guidelines for ALL media members responding to or covering mass shootings
- Try to present official data or documents pertaining to the reasons why this could have occurred and how it can be prevented again (ex: the status of mental health funding in that community, or the current gun control legislation in that community).
- Do not single out a victim or victims simply because he or she was a public official or was well-liked. Every life that is lost is an equal tragedy.
- Give readers or viewers their own choices in viewing graphic manifestos from the shooters themselves, if they are curious about his motives.
These guidelines do not propose an automatic solution to the issue of mass shootings, but do provide a good first step for media organizations to play a possible part in the prevention or treatment. As journalists, we don’t want to constantly be linked to a shooter’s cause for committing such a heinous act, though we seem to be part of the blame in almost every case. Following these guidelines would help journalists be even more fair and accountable while also minimizing harm, so that we are not probable instigators for a future attack.