Why the media needs to remember the victims, not the gunman, in the Florida school shooting

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer

After the accused Florida shooter was taken into custody on Wednesday, news of the 19-year-old’s alleged 2017 boast on YouTube — “I’m going to be a professional school shooter” — became part of the media’s narrative. And with it comes the realization that one of the motivators behind the massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school was the admitted perpetrator’s desire for fame and an urge to achieve such fame by carrying out his goal to commit this kind of violence.

“This love for notoriety and the desire to get it by being an antihero or villain goes back to Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, and Jack the Ripper,” Sherry Hamby, PhD, a research professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South, and the founding editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Violence, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Students are evacuated at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. (Photo illustration: Yahoo Lifestyle; photos: Getty Images)

“There are lots of figures from our past that have gone down in history in this way and proven that it’s a successful way to go down in history,” Hamby says. “The desire to have fame in and of itself is not unusual or pathological, but there’s definitely this subgroup of the population who want to get it any way they can, and violence is not off the table for them.”

As the reality of this devastating normalcy registers with more and more people, many media outlets, however, are changing the way in which they cover mass shootings, oftentimes not naming the shooter after the initial reporting on the event itself — and Hamby says that’s a good thing.

“I am glad to see some media outlets not publishing the name of the perpetrator — but even in today’s news, so many outlets are running detailed backstories of everything we know about this guy and turning his story into a biography,” she says. “And that kind of coverage keeps happening over and over again. The perpetrators get so much more name-specific representation than the victims, than the victims’ families, than law enforcement, than the first responders. If this were a movie script, there is no question who has the lead role in the movie, and that is really corrupting and having a harmful impact on how we think about these kinds of acts.”

Hamby says a problem resulting from reporting on mass shootings is that the tragedies have been proven to act “like an infectious disease, and have elements of what’s known as social contagion,” and that the media often plays right into that.

“Before Columbine, this wasn’t something that was a narrative or a story arc or a life choice that would have occurred to people, because it was outside of the realm of comprehension,” she explains. “There had been other shootings that had taken place at a school or where young people took multiple victims, but with Columbine and all the events afterwards, we’ve created a narrative that you can become a part of and that you can align yourself with that you can become a school shooter. And that’s definitely contributing to this increase of what should be a very rare event.”

It’s important to note that the individual who carried out the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., had a documented obsession with the Columbine shooters. The gunman in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 also revered the Columbine shooters, mentioning them by name in his manifesto that detailed his motivation behind his violence. Even the perpetrator of a German school shooting in 2016 had a book about the Columbine and Virginia tech shooters.

Hamby explains that for a high-risk, vulnerable youth who is experiencing a lot of rejection, alienation, and family problems, the kind of “antihero” narrative as attached to the Columbine shooters yields a completely different response than it would from the average media consumer. For a person psychologically at risk, this coverage can only further inflame that risk, she says, and that is largely because of how perpetrators of mass shootings are made out to be the central characters in these stories.

“I don’t think, in many cases, there is a need to name the perpetrator,” Hamby says.

She adds that even if a shooter is named, that the media should “absolutely stop doing these intensive backstories that go on and on about every detail of these people’s lives — it’s salaciousness. We should be minimizing that. We should put the victims’ stories front and center, putting their pictures up and telling their story — that’s far better than focusing on perpetrators.”

That echoes what JoAnn Bacon — whose daughter, Charlotte, was killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting — expressed to Yahoo Lifestyle recently when she said, “[Often], there’s more attention on the event, or the murderer, or on the investigation and what happened to the school. But no one really wants to focus on the individual. And as a parent, I want to know that people actively remember.”

And not only can media coverage that seems to obsessively chronicle, and thus glamorize, a shooter’s biography inspire others to commit similar acts, but also such coverage, Hamby says, fails to change the larger narrative surrounding the events themselves.

“By creating this antihero narrative, we’re making the problem worse and not better,” she stresses. “I’m not sure what it will take for there to finally be a different kind of national conversation about gun control, but sensationalized stories aren’t helping.”

For the kinds of young people who have the potential to engage in these violent acts, Hamby says that seeing coverage in which a person is not only named but exhaustively profiled can have a “titillating” effect.

“Most of us respond to these stories with horror, distress, frustration that it seems like nothing can be done to prevent these incidents. But for some people, it’s just hard to even begin to express how different their reaction could be. They see this, and it looks like power, a way of showing everybody. It may remind them of things they’ve seen in other violent media or video games and is now made real to them, and they might have a very positive response,” she explains. “It’s still not a very large body of research, but research is starting to emerge that even on much milder kinds of things, like the kinds of information that is out there just by talking about this event, you have to be careful in how you talk about this so it doesn’t cause some to fantasize and project themselves into the world of the bad guy.”

Hamby also notes that more and more young people increasingly find themselves identifying with the villains in movies — such as Darth Vader in the new Star Wars films or the character of Deadpool in the comic book movie of the same name — and feel themselves having more in common with those “who have these very dark sides to them.” Narratives surrounding school shooters — especially when the suspect is explicitly named — can have the same kind of effect.

“It seems exciting to them and engages them in a way that this kind of coverage doesn’t engage others,” she warns, “and motivates them to commit these kinds of acts.”

This is why it is so critical, Hamby says, for the media to play an active role in mitigating this large-scale trauma.

“I think the media is starting to deal with this, by doing things like not naming shooters, but is still really struggling with the problem of false equivalency,” she emphasizes. “No matter what the issue is, it’s like, ‘Well, here is one person who thinks this one thing and one person who thinks the opposite.’ It makes it seem like half of reasonable people think X and half of reasonable people think Y. But many, many times, that’s not at all what it is.”

Hamby says that this kind of coverage — presenting fringe opinions with fair and equal treatment — effectively minimizes the perspectives of the majority by elevating those opinions and giving them equal space.

“The media is starting to deal with how to responsibly cover these kinds of events,” she says, “but if they are still presenting everything like a horse race between rival opinions, who is going to come out ahead? Gun control should not be covered like a horse race.”

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