What if the Media Didn’t Turn Spree-Killers Into Morbid Superstars?

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An armed officer who said he is with the Department of Defense, works near the gate at the Washington Navy Yard, closed to all but essential personnel the day after a gunman launched an attack inside the Washington Navy Yard on Monday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

An armed officer who said he is with the Department of Defense, works near the gate at the Washington Navy Yard, closed to all but essential personnel the day after a gunman launched an attack inside the Washington Navy Yard on Monday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When a drunken fan runs onto a baseball field during a game, broadcasters always cut away to a shot of the crowd, or of the players milling around in the dugout. In an indignant tone, the announcers always say something like, ‘some bozo has run out on the field, but of course we’re not going to show you that because we don’t want to give him any attention.’

That seems like common sense. Contrast that with how the media reacts to mass shootings, like this week’s killings at the Washington, D.C. Naval Yard — they devote days of relentless and sensational coverage teasing out every detail of the lives of the perpetrators.

As I write, all of the cable nets are splashing Aaron Alexis’ picture across the nation’s TV screens. They’re interviewing friends and neighbors – according to CNN his friends say Alexis was always helpful, if prone to fits of rage – and psychologists are weighing in on the mental health status of a dead man they never met. Here was an anonymous guy with problems few people knew or cared about until yesterday, but his grievances and frustrations are now major news: he didn’t like the way the Navy treated him; he complained about difficulties finding work; he may have suffered from PTSD as a result of the attacks of 9/11; he had issues with the Veterans’ Administration.

Obviously, Alexis’ story – and those of other spree-killers — is as newsworthy as it gets. And mass shooters are motivated by all sorts of things so we should avoid overly simplistic explanations of what sets them off. But it’s also clear that the perpetrators of many of these crimes feel small and ignored and lost, and they seek the attention that shooting up a bunch of people will inevitably bring them, whether or not it comes posthumously.

There’s no easy solution here precisely because this stuff is so newsworthy. Most sports fans would probably like to see that bozo run onto the field, only to be tackled by some beefy security guard. Sportscasters don’t give viewers what they want in that case because they don’t want to inspire more bozos to run across more baseball diamonds.

Nobody gets killed when a fan runs onto the field. If they chose to, the news media could tell the story of what motivated a shooter without identifying him or her by name or splashing his or her face everywhere. If they did that then the next unstable, frustrated and heavily armed person would know that blowing away a bunch of innocents won’t make them a morbid superstar.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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