It’s time to rethink coverage of school shootings

Schoolhouses are becoming fortresses equipped with surveillance cameras and bulletproof desks, with teachers serving double duty as armed guards. Children are being pushed into terrifying drills to prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting that is statistically unlikely.

Some of those trends may be fueled in part by sensational coverage of such violence. And a growing chorus of voices—including those of survivors, victims’ families, and researchers—is urging the news media to rethink the way they approach mass shootings, including those that occur at K-12 campuses and colleges.

ICYMI: Teenage journalists memorialize hundreds of gun-violence victims

When a school shooting occurs, education reporters, who my association represents, are the newsroom’s equivalent of first responders. It’s time for those reporters to take the lead to ensure their newsrooms include standards and practices for covering school shootings responsibly, with an eye toward fully informing the public while minimizing the potential for harm.

The potential harm of excessive coverage—especially that which focuses primarily on the perpetrator—isn’t theoretical, Adam Lankford, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama, says. Such coverage is “facilitating and fueling subcultures with people who are disturbed and troubled,” according to Lankford, who co-edited a special issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist examining implications of media coverage of mass killers. While most of those individuals won’t commit shootings, he says, irresponsible media coverage is “normalizing the behavior and cultivating a fan base for those who do.”

After his 18-year-old daughter Meadow was shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, Andrew Pollack said he wants her killer to be referred to only by his jail ID number. “And we must not give him any recognition!” Pollack posted on Twitter.

Other survivors and their families in Parkland, as well as those affected by prior mass shootings, have made similar pleas. The “No Notoriety” campaign, created after a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, urges the media to limit the use of a shooter’s name and likeness. The group’s recommendations include using the perpetrator’s name only once per story “as a reference point,” and never publishing “self-serving statements, photos, videos, and/or other manifestos made by the individual.”

These recommendations can be undertaken without infringing on journalistic principles, Lankford says. He references coverage of a January 2018 school shooting in Kentucky that left two students dead. Newspapers withheld the juvenile perpetrator’s name until he was brought to court to face charges, even though his identity was well-known to the immediate community. Agreeing to limit the use of a shooter’s name could help curtail how frequently the perpetrator shows up in search engines and in social media—factors in their “popularity” ranking among those who idolize shooters, Lankford says.

Resetting the bar for how we cover mass shootings will only be effective if the changes come from within the journalism industry, says Frank Ochberg, a Michigan State University professor of psychiatry who helped found the Dart Center on Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University. “It’s possible to tell the story without contributing to the notoriety of the individual, and that’s a worthy goal,” Ochberg says. “But we can’t create strict guidelines that interfere with healthy journalism practices.”

Dana Banker, the managing editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel—which considers itself the newspaper of record for Parkland coverage—agrees. “Precisely because this is such an emotional and difficult story to cover, it’s all the more reason why you want to rely on your basic, guiding, journalism principles,’” Banker says. “Some of that is the five Ws, with one of the Ws being ‘who.’”

The “who”—including an individual’s actual name—is a vital part of such a story. In some cases, reporting the name publicly can help uncover essential details about the life events that shaped a person’s path to violence. Responsible news organizations must be in a position to do that work freely, Kelly McBride, media ethicist for the Poynter Institute, says. A blackout on the shooter’s name by responsible media will only drive people to the darker corners of the internet looking for more— and often faulty—information, she adds.

McBride, Lankford, Ochberg, and Banker agreed that reporters on the education beat have a special responsibility, in their coverage and in precipitating conversations in their newsrooms, about how these kinds of situations are handled. These are not decisions for the heat of the moment, while an incident is unfolding or in its immediate aftermath, Banker says.

During the past year, I’ve received multiple requests for advice on how to cover active school shooting events, and how to prepare for the possibility of them. To that end, here are my recommendations.

 

Be prepared

Education reporters need to take the lead in their newsrooms and find out whether their outlet has a policy for covering mass shooting events, including those at schools. They should ask managers when their news outlets will name perpetrators, and how often. They should also ask whether coverage of such an event will use tweets sent by students who are in lockdown, or share videos and photos from scenes of violence.

Jessica Bakeman, who covers education for WLRN in Broward County, Florida, told me her newsroom has a policy that calls for strictly limiting the use of a perpetrator’s name, as well as any related audio or visuals, in part to reduce the odds of re-traumatizing survivors. That became especially important after the Parkland shooter’s cellphone videos came to light. “It was clear that one of his primary motives was to get famous,” Bakeman says. “Our job wasn’t to help him do that.”

Evie Blad, who covers campus safety for Education Week, mentions a shift in recent years in how the media reports on suicides amid greater understanding of the contagion risk attributed to irresponsible coverage. “We have recognized in some areas that being thoughtful about how we present information can serve a public good,” Blad says. While a total blackout on naming mass shooters isn’t realistic, and perhaps not even advisable, raising the bar for when it’s deemed necessary is a good step, Blad says. “We can stop every time we’re about to write the name and ask ourselves, ‘Do I need to do that? Have I sufficiently thought about the reasons for doing it?’ We know the power of our words.”

 

Be especially cautious with numbers

From a statistical standpoint, schools remain the safest place for most children to be during the day, and campus shootings are still an anomaly. Gun violence is significantly more likely to impact children off school grounds, which is why conversations about safety must be about more than preparing for active shooter scenarios. Still, 2018 was a particularly violent year, with at least 50 deaths and 88 injuries in K-12 campus gun-related incidents.

The fact that students face a statistically greater risk of being struck by lightning than being shot and killed in their classrooms hasn’t stopped policymakers from investing billions of dollars in school security. And there’s a growing push by some education policymakers to focus on preventative measures like lockdown drills, causing some students emotional trauma, as reported by John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich of The Washington Post.

Writing for The Atlantic, educator Erika Christakis railed against the psychological damage of active shooter drills, especially on those children already facing emotional challenges: “How misguided to take young brains already bathed in stress hormones and train them to fear low-probability events such as mass shootings—and how little most of us think about what we’re doing.” We know that media coverage plays a role in shaping public opinion on a wide range of issues. Is reporting that uses school shooting statistics contributing to a skewed view of school safety, and in turn driving policy decisions that are based more on fear than facts? Those are questions journalists need to ask policymakers, researchers, and each other.

In a recent piece, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz cast doubt on the reliability of some of the more widely cited statistics on the prevalence of gun violence on campus—not just mass shootings, but any time a weapon was discharged. Reporters should look at broader issues related to school safety, Kamenetz says, including how threat assessments are handled, how potential shootings have been thwarted, and the role mental health services might play in identifying students in crisis. “I think in the age of data journalism, there’s a responsibility to see the forest for the trees, and when you judge the newsworthiness of an incident to put it in context,” she says. “The stereotypical ‘school shooter’ is a figure of fear, but it’s not the actual violence affecting most students.”

 

Be brave

What would it take to achieve industry-wide agreement on a set of rules for covering school shootings? “What we need is the leadership of every single news organization—online, print—to be on board,” Poynter’s McBride, who has written guidance on covering mass shootings, says. “We have an absolute moral obligation to minimize copycat shooters, and the way to do that is to be very intentional about when we use the name and when we run a photo or use a video.”

It’s going to take tremendous will by industry leaders to change the status quo, and to ensure new practices are followed by everyone who ultimately touches a story, from reporters in the field to editors and social media producers who might be eager for clicks. These are difficult conversations for reporters to broach with supervisors. But education reporters can and should be proactive here. If the past year has been a turning point for how our nation talks about school violence, it can also be one for how we cover it.

Read: Q&A with Parkland author Dave Cullen

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Emily Richmond is the public editor of the Education Writers Association and hosts the EWA Radio podcast. She previously covered education for the Las Vegas Sun, and was a 2011 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan.