Wednesday Broward County released three brief cell phone videos made by the Parkland school shooter. What struck me was how many times, in the course of a few minutes, Nikolas Cruz mentioned that soon everyone would know who he was. The NY Times published a story yesterday which furthers the idea that one of the major reasons school shootings have become a terrible trend is that the shooters like the idea of instant notoriety:
“I do believe there is a contagion,” said Sue Klebold, 69, the mother of one of the two teenage gunmen in the Columbine attack…
“We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Ms. Klebold said.
The Oregon school shooter even wrote about the idea that committing such a crime was a one-way trip into the “limelight.”
In the wake of a 2015 shooting in which a gunman killed a Virginia news reporter, Alison Parker, and a photojournalist, Adam Ward, on live television, a young man in Oregon took to his blog, and noted how the story of the gunman was being covered by news outlets.
“On an interesting note,” the 26-year-old man wrote, “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.” He added, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
A few months later, that man entered his school in a sleepy Oregon town, Umpqua Community College, armed with six guns, a flak jacket and spare ammunition. He opened fire. Nine people died.
The Times’ story doesn’t draw any firm conclusions but it does point to evidence that media coverage of the attacks is creating a magnet for troubled minds.
The role of the media in turning school gunmen into household names and perpetuating “the infamous legacy they desire” can be shown to have inspired additional attacks, researchers at Western New Mexico University reported recently. There have been growing calls for withholding the names and biographies of school gunmen from newspaper and television coverage.
If school shootings are spreading like a contagion, then it’s not the NRA or guns that are the problem. The intense media glare around these attacks is what draws in the moths. They see it on television and they see it on social media and in YouTube clips. No doubt print media plays a role too but I suspect television plays a bigger part.
I’m actually not sure exactly how we deal with that in a free society with a free press. Americans with kids in public schools are always going to have a legitimate interest in news about loser terrorists attacking kids at school. We can’t pass laws making reporting on these instances illegal even if that would help prevent future attacks.
The NY Times avoids using the names of these shooters in an effort to not allow them to become the focus. That becomes a bit awkward in the final line of the piece, “It’s to me like this kid was being’ her son, ‘all over again,’ she said.” I had to read it twice to make sense of it. That’s Ms. Klebold talking about the Santa Fe shooter and his apparent connection to her son. I’m guessing what she actually said was “It’s, to me, like this kid was being Dylan all over again.” Hacking her quote up to remove her son’s name ruins the impact.
I’m not certain that refusing to mention the names of the Columbine killers really matters all these years later. We can’t undo what we’ve already done. But I suspect the rush to make each new attack the biggest story in the nation plays a role in helping motivate the next shooter. The key then is to change how the media approaches coverage of these attacks going forward.
The solution here is probably going to have to involve convincing responsible outlets to tone it down a little. A school shooting is always going to be big news, but it doesn’t have to become the only thing we talk about for two weeks every time it happens. That seems to be making things worse. As counter-intuitive as it seems, talking about school shooters less may make for fewer of them.