I think we’ve all learned a few things watching the media fumble the hell out of the Sandy Hook shooting story. There’s a disturbing pattern of coverage that tends to follow these stories and I myself am guilty of a few of the items on this list. Moving forward, god forbid there is another incident like this, I won’t make these mistakes again. Will the rest of the media learn a lesson or will we see more of the same? I’m guessing the latter. With that, here are the top 10 stupid things the media does in the wake of a school shooting.
10. Race To Find A Motive
Shortly after the sound of gunfire faded at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, media outlets from Fox News to the New York Times were asking an age-old question: why would someone do something so terrible? In fact, my own son, watching the coverage was asking similar questions. How could someone do something so horrific? The problem is, there’s no answer to that question that gets us anywhere as a society. How do you move the football forward with an answer like ‘well, he was in an argument with his mother and he was ignored for much of his school life’? That does nothing to ease the pain of the parents of 20 dead elementary school students. It’s just rampant speculation.
Who gives a shit what his motive was? Who cares what any terrible person’s motive is? From Charles Manson to Timothy McVeigh, we’ve seen some lunatics with motives. But what does a motive do other than excuse, on some level, the crime committed? The fact is, a mentally deranged man entered an elementary school with several weapons and killed 26 people, 20 of them children. We assess, gather information in an attempt to prevent future intrusions on schools like this, and we focus our good vibes on the families affected by this tragedy.
Fuck a motive.
9. Race To Name The Shooter
When Adam Lanza’s dead body was found inside the school, he was reportedly carrying his brother’s identification. I’m not sure if the self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended his life did so much damage that it was tough to compare the ID and his face, or if no one actually bothered to verify his identity – but he was publicly ID’d as Ryan Lanza, the shooter’s brother.
Off to the races we go!
Reporters quickly sprang into action, employing the oldest journalistic trick in the book: searching Google and Facebook for photos. SPLASH. Ryan Lanza’s name and face were all over websites, television graphics and radio broadcasts. They got the wrong guy. And I took the bait as well. This happens because all news outlets want to be first. They want the hot EXCLUSIVE. Never mind the dead kids, this could make or break my broadcasting career!
— CNN (@CNN) December 14, 2012
Rather than approaching this in a calm and professional manner, they rush to be #1. But once the dust settles, does anyone outside of the media bubble really remember who was first? Probably not. I, and I imagine many others, would prefer accuracy over HURRY UP AND HIT PUBLISH.
8. Report On Every Aspect Of The Shooter’s Life
One of the most frustrating things about post-shooting media coverage is DAY 2/DAY 3 DETAILS. Once the overall timeline has been established and the media has settled in on the identity of the shooter, it’s time to learn about who he/she was as a person. Adam Lanza isn’t a person, though. He’s a monster. He massacred a classroom full of little kids. He killed his own mother and then shot a few other people just for good measure. He’s a scumbag.
I don’t need to know what kind of laptop Adam Lanza used or what kind of cereal he ate in the morning. I don’t need you to dig up video, recent or archival, to show me what he looked like when he was alive. I don’t need a 5,000 word profile in the New York Times, highlighting stories told by friends, relatives and hangers-on. For more on why, watch this.
Stop immortalizing assholes that shoot up schools and fewer schools will be shot up.
7. Show Everyone Exactly How The Shooter Accomplished This Disgusting Feat
I kid you not, this was published by several major news outlets:
The how-to graphic came complete with editorial notes:
EDITORS: Updates with enhanced schematic of school and grounds; also with confirmation body in Yogananda Street house was mother of alleged shooter, Adam Lanza; and reference on diagram of direction and distance to nearby firehouse. Map of area surrounding Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed at least 26 people, 18 of them small children; facts about what is known about the events, the gunman, the scene and the weapons. MCT 2012
Oooh! Now it comes with an enhanced schematic! For whom, exactly? Are folks at home going to print this out and visit the school for a little tour? This is quite possibly one of the most dangerous items on the list. We know that in many school shootings, Columbine for example, much planning goes into the attack. These schematics sure would make it easy to determine what worked/didn’t work in past shootings. How about we refrain from the animations and how-to graphics? It just might save a life.
6. Swarm The Families And Friends Of Victims
This is just disgusting. And it wasn’t just ABC doing this; many news outlets try this tactic:
Leave these people alone. If they want to talk to you, they’ll seek you out.
5. Swerve The Debate Toward Gun Control
It takes about 12 minutes to go from school shooting to full-on gun control, Damn The NRA, Get Your Hands Off My Guns chatter. This is about as predictable as the sunrise and tides. We always try to boil down an insanely complicated news story into the simplest of forms. CAPTAIN HINDSIGHT swoops in to inform us that, without easy access to weapons, none of these kids would be dead. But, as I said, it’s never quite that simple. In this case, the shooter attempted to buy a weapon 3 days before the massacre but was refused at a Dick’s Sporting Goods after refusing a background check.
Adam Lanza, 20, went to a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Danbury, Conn., on Tuesday to buy the weapon, but was turned down because he didn’t want to undergo a background check or abide by the state’s waiting period for gun sales, the officials said.
He stole the weapons, all purchased and legally owned, from his mother.
I can’t believe some Americans are calling for more firearms inc. armed guards in schools! are they all barking mad? just ban guns
— George Johnson (@LadyKentmores) December 15, 2012
Let me hit you with an unfortunate truth: crazy people are going to do crazy things and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop them. Gun violence is actually down quite a bit over the last few years, as are homicides where a gun is the murder weapon. Also, more gun control doesn’t always mean less violence. Between New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., you’re looking at about half of the total gun-related homicides each year. It’s not like those cities have lax gun laws, either. Try getting a gun in Chicago, for instance, where it’s easier to purchase a weapon illegally than legally. It’s a complicated situation that can’t be answered with DOWN WITH THE NRA or HANDS OFF MY RIFLE. So stop trying to solve the unsolvable. Focus on the facts.
Note: It was pointed out to me that perhaps the religious nutjobs blaming this on the lack of religion in the classroom these days ought to be in this category as well. I completely agree. Hucksters using this as an opportunity to build their flock, get media attention or just be a terrible person, are infuriating as well. To hell with them.
4. Bring Up Every School Shooting In Recent Memory
Reuters was quick to crank this sucker out after a school shooting back in April:
It’s like a fucking scoreboard for school shooters. See if you can get the high score!
There’s an obvious desire to add assets to your stories, but this isn’t necessary.
3. Air Gruesome Footage Of The Attack
Do I really need to explain this one? Remember this photo?
The attack footage, surveillance footage and all the rest is what turns these people from losers to heros among a certain crowd. We don’t want to turn these shooters into counter-culture icons and we really don’t need to see video of some jackass mowing down a classroom of kids. Just toss the tape if you get it.
2. Look For Someone Besides The Shooter To Blame
After a school shooting, unhappy with leaving the original story as is, the media often searches for a Could It Have Been Prevented narrative. Why can’t we just blame the person who pulled the trigger? Check out this tidbit from the NYT today:
The lock system did not go into effect until 9:30 each morning, according to a letter to parents from the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, that was posted on several news Web sites. The letter was apparently written earlier in the school year.
It was Ms. Hochsprung, who recognized Mr. Lanza because his mother worked at the school, who let him in on Friday. Sometime later, she heard shots and went to see what was going on.
Well, there you have it! If Ms. Hochsprung had kept him outside the school this whole thing could have been prevented. No, no, that’s not good enough; let’s go back further. If City Slickers hadn’t been released in 1991 and the shooter’s mother hadn’t been aroused by the ‘bump on the rump’ scene, his mother and father would never have had sex, he would never have been born and the children would still be alive. Blame City Slickers. Or maybe Billy Crystal. Just blame someone other than the person clearly responsible for the carnage.
1. Interview Child Victims
If you do this, you should be ashamed of yourself. I don’t care if you have parental approval.
There’s no reason to interview kids after a traumatic situation like this. If you do, you’re clearly focusing on the next big scoop and completely ignoring the welfare of the child. And, as I said, I don’t care if the parents gave you the go-ahead. It’s still wrong. Let the police handle the questioning of these kids and focus on adults that are willing to speak with the press.