Ashlyn Foss: Media feeding into vicious cycle of mass shootings

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Whenever a mass shooting occurs, and lately they have occurred in what seems like rapid succession, one of the first questions asked is, “Why?” From the first cries by witnesses and survivors, captured by television cameras, to roundtable discussions on CNN, the question, “Why?” is first and foremost.

After a few days, a psychological analysis is released, delving into the nitty gritty of the murderer’s very makeup, wanting to understand. This satisfies most people to the “why.”

“He was insane, that’s why.”

“A ticking time bomb, that’s why.”

“He came from a broken home and an abusive childhood, that’s why.”

I’ll tell you the real why.

It’s the media.

Mass shootings are absolutely horrible, yes. That’s undeniable. The loss of life is saddening, not to mention the grief felt by the families of those who have passed on. We want to express condolences and show that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” on social media. But within the first 24 hours, the entire situation turns into a three-ring circus tantamount to Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.

Reporters trip over each other for a front-row glimpse of the crime scene to air on the nightly news. The same “breaking” information blares at the bottom of the screen for days. The gun-control debates are ignited yet again, dusted off from the top shelf where they’ve been shoved since the last shooting. Politicians use the debate to their advantage, milking the tragedy for their own agendas. And then what happens? When the next important news story comes along, we forget about the shooting, until the next one comes along and the cycle begins anew. “It happened again? Why?”

How many mass killers can you name? The first that come to mind are Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Nidal Hasan, Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. How do you think you can name them? Because they have been ingrained into our minds, by ceaseless news coverage. Articles. Specials. Every year on the anniversary of the shooting, the killers’ faces are broadcast on major news networks, as if we (or the survivors) had forgotten what they looked like.

Harris and Klebold massacred students at Columbine High School 15 years ago. Yet their names are recognizable to most every student in schools across the United States. Could the same students name the president in office 15 years ago? We remember Columbine because it was tragic, because there were endless books written on the subject, because Rachel Joy Scott stood up for her religious beliefs in her final moments. It’d be great if we only remembered the victims and honored them. But the word “Columbine” has become synonymous with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s names, much like Adam Lanza is now associated with “Newtown.”

Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, researched the massacre for 10 years. He’s called upon for TV interviews every time a mass shooting happens, regarded as somewhat of an expert. On MSNBC, he said in regard to the media’s coverage: “You just call him the killer, the perpetrator, the gunman, the suspect, all sorts of different things.” Cullen continues: “It’s very easy to do. We disappear him.” Cullen believes that the media doesn’t have to always identify the gunman by name; instead they should focus on the victims.

When we read those hurriedly written psychological analysis of their brains, the ones that “experts” come up with soon after the carnage, searching for an answer to “why,” what do we find? Antisocial behavior. Loneliness. Depression. Anxiety. Certainly none of these by themselves is a cause to engage in a murderous rampage. Many of us live with these illnesses on a daily basis. But take these symptoms coupled with a need for recognition, a craving to be noticed, and to achieve something in a life they don’t want to live anymore, and you have the modern American mass shooter.

The recognition is exactly what the media is giving them. I understand the media has a duty to report on the latest, breaking news. Not reporting on what the listeners or readers want would be almost sacrilegious. The definition of media is “the main means of mass communication [esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet] regarded collectively,” after all. The basis of the whole thing is to inform viewers of what needs to be known. But the key phrase there is “what needs to be known.” The public can do without the constant images of the killer and the psychological analysis. Focus on the victims and the memorials and the legacies the victims leave behind. Is the big headline story really worth encouraging the next mentally disturbed person with a chip on his shoulder and access to a gun to act? Unless the media stops reporting endlessly on these people, they will continue to do the terrible things they do, for the attention and infamy they, no doubt, will receive. It’s a vicious cycle that will only be repeated again and again if we don’t do something to stop it.

As Cullen said, “We didn’t know all [the shootings were] going to happen. But now we do. And I think we’re starting to realize we have sort of played a role. We didn’t start it. But we have sure been hurling the gasoline on, or allowing it, really gassing it up. So it’s different now.” The question now is, will the media continue to feed the flames, or can we extinguish the fire before it’s too late?

ASHLYN FOSS is a junior at Ryan High School and a participant in the Denton Record-Chronicle’s “Speak Out Loud” program for student journalists.


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