News & Politics

Republicans Aren't Going to Pass Gun Control Laws Any Time Soon, But the Media's Role in Gun Violence Can Be Fixed Now

Television news networks play a major role in perpetuating mass violence.

Photo Credit: wellphoto / Shutterstock

So far in 2018, the U.S. has seen nearly one mass shooting per day. People are dying out there, so let’s be pragmatic. As long as the NRA has its moneyed grip on Republican elected officials, it’s nearly impossible for gun control legislation to pass. Even the last time Democrats controlled the House from 2009 to 2011, they couldn’t summon the political power to pass smart gun laws. By no means should we end our demand for such legislation. But at the same time, let’s consider other ways to deter future violence. A good way to start is by implementing higher journalistic standards for the way the media talk about mass shootings.

There are a few, fairly simple quick-fixes that the mainstream media, especially 24-hour television news networks, can implement to help prevent future shootings.

Stop Using Killers’ Names to Prevent Copycats

The media has a well-documented impact on the frequency of mass shootings. Some have called it the "media-contagion effect." Researchers believe that the over-reporting of mass shootings is partly to blame for their frequency.  An analysis of recent shootings in the U.S. shows the likelihood of a shooting increases for two weeks after similar episodes of widely televised violence. Some infamous mass shootings are known to be copycat events. The killers at Sandy Hook, Roanoke and Lafayette closely studied and admired the murders at Columbine and Charleston, to name a few.

Sometimes the killers admit their desire for notoriety. Mass shooters are usually narcissists seeking attention. The UC Santa Barbara and Virginia Tech shooters sent manifestos to the local news before committing their crimes. “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone & unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are,” the Oregon Umpqua Community College killer wrote on his blog. “A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone.” Overreporting can give these killers exactly the attention they so desired.

There is some growing awareness, even among major cable news networks, that the way they cover mass shootings has an impact on potential future ones. No Notoriety, an activism project founded by Tom and Caren Teves, the parents of one of the victims of the Aurora shooting in 2012, pushes news media to refrain from using killers’ names on air.

No Notoriety reports a few victories in its efforts to prevent copycat killers. They’ve recruited Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper and Chris Berman, as well as some local reporters, all of whom have committed to refraining from using mass shooters’ names on television. “Many individual reporters, anchors, journalists are embracing the challenge and their higher-ups obviously are not restricting them from embracing the protocol,” Caren Teves told AlterNet. “More and more, we are seeing these individuals stating that they will not use the name or show the photo in connection with their piece.” But Teves confirms that zero cable news networks have made this their company policy. “I’m unaware of any networks on a whole who have committed to following the NN protocol, with the exception of 9News NBC Denver.”

Talk About the Real Roots of Shootings: Toxic Masculinity and Domestic Violence

As right-wing media increasingly become hostile to the gun control debate after a mass shooting, left-leaning media pushes back to return the conversation to the need for gun control legislation. The left’s cause, demonstrated by Don Lemon on CNN this week, for one, is admirable, but some media critics believe both sides are ignoring the real roots of the problem.

Media literacy educator Jennifer Pozner is one such critic. She runs a workshop on how media instigates gun violence and has appeared as an expert on Fox, MSNBC and elsewhere. Alongside many in progressive feminist media, she’s affirmed for years that domestic violence and misogyny are the best indicators of future mass shootings. Since Wednesday’s shooting, police have revealed that the Parkland shooter was obsessed with a female classmate and had been previously reported for stalking her.

Obsession or anger with a woman has been a frequent precursor of many mass shootings. But it’s an issue that has been widely ignored by the mainstream media. Instead, the right would rather return to conversations about mental health. Pozner says the Virginia Tech shooter had previously stalked a female student and a professor had complained about him, but few news reports mentioned this.

“That shooting was really relevant to what we’re seeing today," Pozner says. "That shooting took place in two installments. First, he killed the woman he’d been obsessed with. The news cycle was just talking about it as a mental health problem, saying it must be that people with mental health problems pose a threat to everybody. There was very little discussion around the fact that he had already hurt a woman.”

Until mainstream corporate media brings these significant issues to their millions of regular viewers, it’s unlikely that the public will make the connection, and equally unlikely that law enforcement will take notice.

Call Mass Shooters What They Really Are: Terrorists

While we’re working to reform the way the mainstream media covers shootings, let’s implement some standards in the language we use. A well-documented double-standard shows that television news media frequently refers to Muslim shooters as “terrorists” and white male shooters as “gunmen,” “lone wolves” or some other innocuous term. Journalists should use the same language to talk about white male "lone wolf" shooters as they do domestic attacks by ISIS members and sympathizers. Organizations like the Gun Violence Archive consider any gunman who injures four or more people a mass shooter, regardless of his skin color or religion. Corporate media should use the same neutral, impartial language.

Aside from religious violence, political violence is hardly ever described as terrorism. This double-standard becomes clear whenever men commit violence against women seeking reproductive health services. Pozner sees a dangerous trend of news outlets refusing to call violence at abortion clinics terrorism. One such example: on Sept. 11, 2006, anti-abortion rights fanatic David McMenemy drove his car into a women’s health clinic in Davenport, Iowa, intending to use a homemade bomb to kill the people inside. He failed, but though his crime was clearly politically motivated and should have made national headlines, the only news organization that covered the story was a local outlet in Iowa.

“This was a textbook case of domestic terrorism," Pozner says. “Even though the AP ran the story, no one picked it up. Not only was it not considered terrorism, it wasn’t considered newsworthy. Meanwhile, someone who’s Arab or Arab-looking coughs in an airport, and we have hours of news coverage talking about whether it’s a terrorist threat or not. We have a very different standard for white men or white people in general who commit politically motivated violence, and I include mass shootings and mass terrorizing of women as political motivated violence.”

How difficult could it be to lobby corporate news organizations to change the way they cover mass shootings? Surely it would be an easier feat than getting Republican officials to listen, when they refuse even to answer journalists’ questions about their pandering to the NRA.

Television journalism plays a critical role in covering mass shootings. By speaking with survivors, they are able to bear witness to the community’s grief. As we’ve seen this week, when Stoneman Douglas High School survivors gave impassioned pleas for gun control laws, television as a journalistic medium is able to capture an emotional element that print, digital and radio are not, and those reporters on the ground should be lauded for their work. At the same time, they need to be held accountable for reporting on these events safely, without participating in any behavior that could perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.