Media coverage of mass shootings should serve public interest, not killers’ agendas

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, consoles a woman as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers among tributes to the victims of the Christchurch shootings. Photo courtesy TVNZ

The text message arrived at 12:44 a.m.

We were asleep, but Holly heard the ping. Messages after midnight are almost always bad news.

“You guys are going to wake up to news of another mass shooting. Don’t watch the video.”

The warning came from Jackson Gilbert, our youngest son who will graduate in May from a police academy.

Jackson wasn’t simply trying to protect us from seeing a gruesome massacre.

No, it soon became clear that the slaughter of dozens of worshippers at mosques in ChristChurch, New Zealand, was carried out by a white nationalist terrorist who livestreamed it on social media.

And authorities, social media websites, #NoNotoriety advocates, and many journalists around the world were encouraging people to refuse to watch, share or repost the horrific video.

Their message:

  • Don’t give the shooter the infamy he covets.
  • Don’t promote his self-serving, anti-immigrant manifesto.
  • Don’t glorify the cowardly act of killing unarmed people in houses of worship.
  • Don’t inspire would-be copycats — be aware of the “contagion effect.”

As I explained Sunday in an interview with WWJ News Radio, I’m sympathetic to #NoNotoriety movement. We talk about it every semester in the media ethics course I teach at Oakland University.

Many news organizations, for ethical reasons, have protocols in place to withhold the names of victims of sexual assault, suicides, and juveniles involved in crimes.

There is, I remind students, a downside, however. Withholding information may not always serve the public interest.

When reports surface about another mass shooting somewhere, it’s human nature to immediately wonder: Who did it? The audience comes to us for accurate and objective reports about what happened.

I also think it’s important for reporters to try to find and explain the “why.” Knowing the motivations of mass killers may help us take steps to prevent such terrorist attacks in the future.

Bottom line: In this case, the internet amplified the shooting.  The shooter used social media to spread his hatred.

Thus, it becomes even more critical for the journalists who make the news decisions for mainstream media to find the middle ground. Tell the audience what it “needs” to know while limiting references to the killers. Don’t share or repost any material that gives the shooters the infamy they seek.

Do the right thing.


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