How not to cover a story about mass murderers

The Guardian gets it right.

The recent shooting at a theater in Colorado has left me wondering if media coverage needs to be done carefully in case other copy cat murders would follow suit, hoping to gain headlines, notoriety and fame.

In an interview for an online NBC article Mass murderers often not mentally ill, but seeking revenge, experts say, James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston makes a chilling statement. It is a statement that all journalists and editors need to hear:

“The attack may encourage copycat actions but not necessarily, Fox said. “What bothers me in situations like this is to see lists of the worst mass shootings,” he said. “It encourages people to try to break records.”

The more attention, detail and description journalists add to incidences of mass murder, the more information for copy cats killers and increased need to break the previous record.

On March 25, 2009, BBC’s Newswipe anchor Charlie Brooker interviewed an American psychiatrist who gave the following advice:

“If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders…Don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story. Not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localise this story to the affected community and as boring as possible in every other market.”

In the New Statesman’s article How the media shouldn’t cover a mass murder by Helen Lewis, we see who has followed Charlie Booker’s advice, and who hasn’t.

All newsrooms and newspapers need to reevaluate whether the news value or worthiness of a story is more important than the likely propagation of similar crimes due to incessant coverage and front page photographs of mass murderers with blank stares and big smiles.

Don’t give these killers the attention they seek by plastering their faces all over the news.

Currently, journalists use a code of ethics to help guide them to write accurately and without risk, for the most part, of breaking any laws. The Society of Professional Journalists lists Minimize Harm as one of its ethics, which does a fine job of protecting “those who may be affected adversely by news coverage,” but needs to go further in its description of how the news coverage itself can propagate acts of crime.

The video below is Charlie Booker’s Newswipe discussion on how the media coverage of mass murders can get out of control, isn’t real news, and turns mass murderers into “nihilistic pin-ups.”

If you are wondering if there is factual evidence on whether or not media coverage can conrtibute to copy cat killers, here’s the answer:

Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage In The Mass Media


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