It happens all too often: A shooting occurs and the news networks trip over themselves to cover the story. In an industry that increasingly depends on “exclusives” in order to differentiate the major players, these networks inevitably race to uncover the details of the shooters themselves. As a result, they perpetuate a deadly hypocrisy that ensures these acts of violence will continue.
On Aug. 26, 2015, I had the TV on as I created lesson plans. That morning’s shows vacillated between coverage of The Donald’s latest stump speech (Look! This time Trump’s making fun of Asians!) and the terrorist overtaken by passengers on a French train. Both stories had managed to satisfy the ratings gods all week, so the story of an early morning shooting involving reporters in Roanoke, Va., barely caused a ripple.
Soon, however, news began trickling in that correspondent Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were gunned down while thousands watched live on television. The shooter had recorded everything and posted the video to social media, and now he was on the run. Fresh off the ratings bonanza of the previous month’s New York prison break, viewers could almost taste the saliva dripping from the corner of Anderson Cooper’s mouth.
No sooner had the wild-eyed speculation begun than lunchtime brought the promise of a ratings holy grail: A 14-year-old boy using a pistol to hold 30 people hostage in a West Virginia high school. This is the stuff of Nielsen gold where talking heads can justify hours upon hours of “special reports.” Alas, a cool-headed teacher and police negotiator managed to talk the would-be shooter into giving up without incident. It was the news equivalent of catch-and-release, where little fish must be thrown back in the water.
Before producers could re-cue the Trump footage, however, news broke that the Roanoke shooter had since killed himself after a brief police chase. Given time to parse through the killer’s online rants, CNN promptly began to scroll through a series of pictures of the shooter while placing smaller photos of the victims off to the side. They patted themselves on the back while stating they wouldn’t show the actual video the doomed cameraman had taken during the shooting. They showed a still photo from it instead ... of the gunman standing over his victim and aiming his pistol mere seconds before he pulled the trigger.
Thanks for sparing us, CNN.
Various talking heads went to such great lengths to list his previous work experience and relationship to the victims that I almost felt I knew him. At least, better than I knew the two innocent people he’d just murdered.
Guest after guest trotted out to comment on the public spectacle this shooter had wished to create — the very public spectacle in which they were, at that moment, participating — and sat dumbfounded as they danced around the elephant in the teleprompter. This killer had wanted to be known, to be famous … and that’s exactly what these news networks were providing: a star vehicle for a homicidal maniac.
CNN anchor John Berman even interviewed Dave Cullen, the author of a book on the Columbine massacre and frequent critic of TV’s tendency toward sensationalism while covering these tragedies. After Cullen lamented how news shows continue to glorify the perpetrators of these heinous acts by repeatedly referring to them by name while searing their pictures into our collective memory, Berman replied with a shocking nonchalance.
“It’s a choice we feel comfortable with … No media outlet pulled the trigger.” When Cullen presses him on his network’s alarming lack of personal responsibility, Berman replied, “He would have been aggrieved with something.” Then, in a segue that captures the sensibilities of broadcast journalism perfectly, Berman conceded the point and said, “Let’s get into the mindset of the shooter…” And, amazingly, that’s exactly what Cullen did for the rest of the segment.
At some point, television news outlets need to own their part in this lethal trend rather than hiding behind flimsy justifications in order to fulfill the prurient interests of a jaded public. After all, CNN.com had just posted an article the previous month where author Ben Smart wrote, “Mass killings and school shootings spread ‘contagiously,’ a new study found … leading researchers to believe that national media coverage of a mass shooting might play a role.”
Focusing on the killers during these tragedies simply plants the seed for the next shooting.
You may read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.