U.S. Media Needs to Change Coverage of Mass Shootings

Media covering a press conference following a shooting event. 

While I was inspired to write this because of the recent school shooting in Michigan, this article is not about guns or gun control because I think that topic is detached from the point. 

The uniquely American cycle of mass gun violence is now spinning a lot faster than it used to. What was previously years between events is now months or even weeks. While the lax gun control laws that we have in the US are a part of this alarming trend, they are not the only factor. The American legacy news media conglomerate is also to blame, and their share can be explained with one reason: journalism is a business.

If you have watched cable news at all in the last 10 years, you may  have gotten the impression that there is rarely anything significant to talk about. The anchors seem like they are stalling for time. And that’s because they are. 

Organizations such as MSNBC, Fox News and CNN don’t make money from telling the news. Rather, they make money from the advertisements that run alongside the news. Hence, their goal is to keep people watching as long as possible to see as many ads as possible. Companies are more willing to buy advertising space when your programming gets lots of traffic. 

As information technology has exploded, most of us have shifted to getting our news from non-traditional sources, like the websites of newspapers or social media, which has left the legacy cable news organizations in a desperate position. They sensationalize what little news there even is, exhaustively milking topics to death and make up pointless controversies to keep people watching until the next commercial break. Normally, this is not an issue, as most of this “content” is irrelevant. But when something truly important happens, like a mass shooting, the sensationalized American cable news machine finally has something to talk about.

Mass shootings are a jackpot for these organizations. They come with an easy explanation of who, what, where, when, why and how. There is an obvious “bad guy.” There are motives, emotions and numbers, which can be exhaustively told, retold and updated as the situations evolve. They are exciting in an incredibly grim sense of the word. 

The practice of reporting to fill the space between commercials now takes on a darker tone. A single event can provide a week’s worth of content, as anchors deep dive into every single thing related to the shooting, the most problematic being the shooter.

The news covers everything about them. These were their names. These were their weapons. This was their body count, compared to other shootings. Here’s what they said on their social media page prior to the shooting. Thus, this coverage creates a legacy. The depraved individual, who would have never otherwise gotten noticed, is now recognized by name and face in nearly every American household. They become celebrities. 

This media treatment shows other similarly unstable people around the country that they will be rewarded for their deplorable actions and that they will be given the attention that they so desperately crave on a nation-wide scale. They will be compared with the others that came before them, and the media is keeping score.

These events give people who have tuned out a reason to watch cable news again. They provide a narrative and an emotional response of great proportion to the viewers, who in-turn are boosting the ratings and profits of the news organizations. 

The content does not stop with the shooting. Afterward, they can create all varieties of branched-off content: interviewing the survivors, airing debates on gun control and interviewing the survivors about their reactions to those very debates. This continued unfettered coverage does not help the affected heal but instead scar. 

While I do believe that such tragedies should be reported on, they should be treated with reverence and care to make sure healing can take place and to prevent the perpetrators from gaining the legacy they aim to create. Changes like not showing the shooter’s name and face, not elaborating on their personal life, along with donating all or a portion of the revenue from the broadcast to organizations that can help prevent the continuation of these tragedies would be a good fix. This task lies with those who report these events. News organizations hold tremendous sway over the happenings of our society, and they should treat their power with more dignity, respect and caution.