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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  • DavidW

    There is a lack of economic justice when Baseball pays for the TV coverage and essentially gets to call the shots when news media gets paid or rather ratings for their advertisers to pay for the news. We vote with our dollars and Baseball is very big and gets many dollar votes.

    Other advertisers are small and pay news outlets for eyeballs for their ads. It comes down to us, to our needs when both Baseball and news media basically implement the will of their customers.

    So, how do we get past this to another level of decency? I certainly don’t have simple one note answers but do have possibilities, such as people powered media. Imagine if a news product or service were owned by the consumer of that news. There’d be less profit pressure and it wouldn’t be a vanity project of some robber baron. It would not be a perfect solution but the needs of the readers would be a principled priority of this news media product or service.

    Education would also be an important component of such a future product and that could help to grow and expand the intellectual capability of its readers. Hopefully improving culture and society.

  • Donald Shank

    I’d prefer media reports to focus on the victims, referring to the shooter with the modifier “the cowardly perpetrator” while minimizing details not relevant to the incident and refraining from showing his picture. Deny them the twisted sense of glory & fame that motivates them to such horrific acts.

  • Brenda Duffey

    I am so tired of seeing all this repeated time and again. This type of yellow journalism is extended on a national and international level. The bottom line is people want it and this type of stuff sells. We need to have a media that is not concerned with advertising dollars but in depth coverage of news that matters so that people can be aware of what’s going on in their society and protect democracy and the rights of all people in a free society to feel safe and secure and enjoy the highest quality of life they desire.

  • JonThomas

    It is complicated. If media does choose to not bring attention to the shooters identity, then there may be less attention paid to the root causes of WHY a person chose to commit such horrific acts.

    In this last incidence, knowing the shooter’s identity allows the media, and researchers in general to find out about mental instability. This knowledge shines light on the ineffectiveness of current background checks.

    It’s a slippery slope from not bringing attention to the perpetrator to not getting attention paid to these incidents at all.

    Think that’s an exaggeration? A similar tact was taken in coverage of war and of casualties. Now we have no idea of the casualties of war. War has become sanitized of the consequences to real people.

    Same thing will happen in these mass shootings. I agree that it would be beneficial to take away the attention seeking impetus of these murderers, but please be careful, those with agendas will capitalize on the situation and public opinion will be manipulated.

    Sorry, but we have no reason to trust that the media, the politics of law enforcement, or politicians themselves are free from the influence of powerful people and groups who do not want the public to be informed.

    It is a fine line, but one that where we are wide open to manipulation. It’s one thing to not care who, or why somebody chooses to run naked on a sports field, but quite another where future lives are at stake, and where interest groups stand to make or lose money and public support.

    I have no clear answer, just a suggested warning. I wish there was more to offer.

  • Michael Hughes

    Except that Moyers didn’t write this piece: Joshua Holland did. Still, I take your meaning (and agree with it).

  • Tom Teves

    There is absolutly no need to show the picture or name of these cowards. The media can and should investigate them, try to find out backround and motivation so that we can find warning signs for the future but they should in no way use his name or his picture or likeness once he is not a threat to society, I.E. is incarerated or (hopefully) has killed himself. I agree 100% with your premise though I would challenge you, why did you use his name – there was no need. Call the person the peretrator or shooter or Coward (most accurate) but not his name. It will be available for those who want to know, its not possible to keep it a secret but take away the time on “stage” not for this person but for people who would like to emulte him. If that motivation is only for 10% of the shooters we would have saved 5 lives with jsut Aurora, Newtown and the Navy yard. We can debate this all that we want but the media is supposed to be more ethical – show some courage and stop the killing. Don’t think it can’t happen to you – it happend to my son in Aurora. Hopefully the media will find the courage to do something constructive. Show COURAGE – that is the American way.

  • strider367

    OMG the FBI released the naval yard videos. Doesn’t anybody especially the media realize. These over covered stories has some of our problem people. Seeing this as there 15 minutes of terror for all to see. This kind of coverage needs to be toned down…