It’s inevitable. There will be another rampage shooting in the coming months. Sadly, they have become regular occurrences.
When it happens the event will become a major media event. CNN will go live to the scene of murder and mayhem, repeating over and over whatever tidbits of information they have about the tragedy. When the truth about the shooter (or shooters) and their motives are eventually revealed, there’s a good chance that CNN, the rest of the mass media and the public themselves will have moved on to the next Big Story, never learning the truth.
Is there anything the media can do to make these tragedies less likely to occur? I think there is.
Whether it happens in a school, a factory, a shopping mall or a courthouse it will happen again. Many people have many theories about why they have become so prevalent. After analysis of a generation of school shootings (one category of rampage shootings) Katherine Newman in her 2004 book, Rampage, identifies five factors are common to these tragedies:
- The shooter’s perception of themselves as extremely marginal in the social world that matters to them;
- The shooter suffers from psychological problem that magnify the impact of their marginality;
- Cultural scripts lead them to an attack and the attack resolves a dilemma the script poses;
- A failure of surveillance or warning signs to identify the troubled shooter and a failure of peers to report the shooter;
- The availability of guns.
If Newman is right about the factors that rampage shootings have in common, and I believe she is, there are many things we can do to make these tragedies less likely to happen. That’s not the point I want to make today.
Rampage shootings are not typically spontaneous. They are planned for many months, sometimes even years in advance. One of the things that has become apparent is that rampage shooters study the mass killings that precede their spree. They obsess with the coverage.
Journalists will bristle with this suggestion, but I would like to suggest that when the next rampage shooting occurs, the media stop repeating the shooter’s name over and over again. Rampage shooters are often suicidal, but it is the fame that they want more than death. If death were all they wanted they would commit suicide and not murder as many innocent students or co-workers as they could.
I’m not suggesting that we keep the name of the shooters a secret, but editors and news producers should exercise self-restraint to use the name just once and then stop repeating it ever again. A search for the name of a rampage killer will always turn up the name, but making them famous only encourages copycats.
The First Amendment would make difficult legislating this policy, but there is a precedent for the media voluntarily adopting this new policy. The media has self regulated itself to never publish the name of rape victims. There is a good public policy rationale for that: the humiliation of media coverage re-victimizes the rape victim. Laws that prevent media revealing the names of juvenile offenders are common as well.
Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes and Adam Lanza are household names. They shouldn’t be. They are far more famous than their victims. How many people can name the people Loughner murdered in Tucson?
We don’t need to know the names of rampage shooters. If we stopped publicizing their names they would be less likely to want to go down in a fiery blaze. Maybe, just maybe we might save some innocent lives. And how much harm would it cause just to give this a try?
I guarantee this initiative is easier to accomplish than curing mental illness, ending bullying in schools or passing comprehensive gun control. Let’s give it a try.