TEDy: Making tragedies worse

Violence. Tragedy. Controversy. These are some of the things that keep news media afloat and the most audiences engaged. But at what point does reporting on acts of violence and malevolence become ethically wrong?

A couple of decades ago, mass shootings were unthinkable and quite rare. Now, it seems like they happen regularly. In the wake of the shooting in New Zealand last March, a repeated pattern has made it obvious why the number and severity of these tragedies have been steadily increasing for years.

Among other factors, the largest contributor to these acts is the propagation and attention that they receive in the media. After each one, details, interviews and other coverage goes on for weeks, all while generating advertising revenue and increasing ratings. The media profits off of massacres.

The easier it is to connect to a story, the more likely someone is to emulate it. Coverage of mass shootings provides everything necessary for some to relate to and empathize with the shooter: social media, interviews, motivations and the shooter’s face.

Without the sensationalized way that massacres are reported on, the nobodies who commit acts of mass violence would not become celebrities overnight. Many of the criminals guilty of mass killings were motivated by a lust for notoriety, an opportunity to create and solidify a legacy. The coverage of their acts guarantees them their wish. There is no better example of an evil legacy being solidified and inspiring others than the Columbine shooting of 1999. The perpetrators of this tragic event are hailed as heroes on many online forums and can be found in many modern shooting manifestos.

Just as there are people who worship serial killers, the same holds true for mass shooters. The news media enables these communities to grow and encourages people with nothing left to care about in life to join the roster of shooters and become idols for sick individuals around the globe.

There has been extensive research into the effects of suicide coverage on increasing suicide rates leading to reforms in how these incidences are covered. The same needs to happen for mass shootings.

Reform must take place in regard to how violence is covered. Do not turn the shooter into a celebrity: stop spreading a face, name and other elements that give them humanity. Instead, focus reporting on information useful to preventing future attacks such as methodology and causes, as well as coverage of positive aspects such as efforts by first responders and the resilience of the community.

Those in opposition to this “limited” coverage argue for the public’s “right to know.” However, necessary info can be conveyed without unintentionally glorifying the killer. For example, the shooter’s name does not need to be mentioned more than once in a story. Instead, pronouns such as “the perpetrator” can be used to make it harder for others to relate.

Journalists have an important job in reporting these incidents. However, when the focuses become the face, the motivation and kill count of the murderer, journalists should remember their ethical responsibilities and prioritize them over extra revenue.