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“Giving Killers Coverage, Not Platforms”: Perpetuating A Culture In Which Violence Is Rewarded With Notoriety

The stone-faced young man stood on the sidewalk last week near Union Square holding a large, hand-lettered sign on a hot-pink piece of poster board. It read: “I deserve hot blonde women.” I wondered if this could be an ironic piece of feminist political commentary or if it was intended to seem hostile.

In any case, it was clearly inspired by the shooting near the University of California at Santa Barbara about a week before. The killer, Elliot Rodger, set out to target beautiful young women, he said, because they had rejected him sexually.

But it’s a far more extreme kind of “inspiration” that worries Ari Schulman, who thinks and writes about the effect of media coverage of mass shootings. After The Times posted both the 141-page written manifesto and a video statement issued by the California gunman last week, Mr. Schulman wrote to me. He made the case that publishing those statements — which he sees as a form of propaganda — perpetuates a culture in which violence is rewarded with notoriety.

“There’s an unspoken agreement that if you are frustrated and angry, that all you have to do to get your feelings broadcast is to kill a lot of people,” Mr. Schulman, the executive editor of The New Atlantis, a quarterly journal devoted to technology and society, told me in a later interview. He spoke of a “conscious copycat effect” that can be seen in the string of mass killings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown, Conn.

The media, he says, “have been nearly perfect participants” in the “ritualistic response” that incentivizes these horrific episodes. It’s past time, he believes, to rethink that and to change it.

He was not alone, among Times readers, in considering this question. I heard from a Hunter College professor, Steven M. Gorelick, who wrote that he wondered “what might have gone into the decision by The Times to post the chilling video made by Mr. Rodger before he went on his killing rampage.” He wondered whether this was “a simple case of the public’s right to know, or whether there was any substantive discussion about any kind of possible negative impact that posting the video might have had.”

For most journalists, the instinct to publish what they know — rather than to hold back — is a strong one. Yet nearly every article reflects judgments and decisions about what to use and what not to use.

Unlike many news outlets, The Times did not cast the video and written statements in a sensational light — but it did publish them.

Kelly McBride, who writes about journalism ethics, believes “there’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.” But, she recommended in a piece for Poynter.org, “don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document.”

Mr. Schulman sees a different middle ground, he says. The barrier to publication of these documents and videos should be higher, and the media attention paid to them far less — “maybe no more than a passing mention that it exists.”

And The Times wrote a story last December about people in Colorado who, based on similar thinking, want the media to stop publishing even the names of mass killers. Their idea — more extreme than Mr. Schulman’s proposal — has gained some traction. 

I talked to The Times’s national editor, Alison Mitchell, about the issue. She told me that decisions about whether to use this kind of material are not made lightly.

“In every one of these cases, we think about it. It comes under a lot of discussion, and is not done reflexively,” she said. In this case, the video and manifesto were so integral to understanding the motivation for the crimes, she said, “we would have very consciously not have been telling a big part of the story.”

Times readers “want to see and judge for themselves,” Ms. Mitchell said. “It’s a disservice to try to shield them.”

As a lifelong journalist, my instincts, predictably enough, line up with Ms. Mitchell’s. In general, I don’t believe in holding back germane information from the public.

When I started writing this column, I had the notion of leaving out Mr. Rodger’s name. But it proved impossible, just as, however appealing it might be, it would be impossible for news organizations to leave out the names of other mass killers.

I find Mr. Schulman’s reasoning thought provoking, though. Many factors enter into these outbursts of violence: gun availability, mental illness, sometimes misogyny, and more. Media attention is undeniably one of them. And the idea of playing down a killer’s “manifesto” is, at the very least, worth consideration, on a case-by-case basis. We may have no choice but to name the killers, but we are not obligated to provide a platform for every one of their twisted views.

 

By: Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, The New York Times, May 31, 2014

June 1, 2014 - Posted by | Mass Shootings, Media | , , , , ,

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