Four Lessons on School Shootings

Dark, cold, grey, brooding Helsinki. This was the backdrop for Violence in the Networked Society, an international conference hosted by University of Helsinki’s Communication Research Center on Nov. 6 and 7, 2009. It was a particularly poignant setting, because in 2007 and again in 2008 Finland was the site of school shootings that together left 18 students murdered. In this highly literate and socially conscious society, the sense of communal grief was profound — a national trauma. So was the sensitivity to media coverage of the events.

For two days, I joined dozens of journalists, researchers, teachers, students and communication scholars to discuss the complexities of how contemporary media should report on such violence. As someone who has been studying journalism and trauma for the last 10 years, these are what I see as important lessons which I hope have classroom and newsroom applications:

1. Don’t offer a single cause for a complex event

Reporters and editors need to realize that school shootings, workplace rampages and many other trauma stories cannot be attributed to a single causal factor. But that is standard practice in much media coverage, according to UCLA’s George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair, Douglas Kellner. In coming to terms with the why-did-this-happen question, reporters frequently fall back on simplistic explanations: the out-of-control male with a gun, the crazy person who one day just comes unglued and so on. In school shooting news narratives, young people are often scapegoats, with direct or implied calls for stronger surveillance of youth.

Kellner suggested that stronger surveillance of schools would indeed be an appropriate response to such an event, as would reporting that looked at multiple causes and situated events in the context of larger social issues. Addressing these larger issues will require more resources in all areas of public life, he said, including schools, workplaces and the military. Sadly, Kellner was speaking to the group on the day of the Fort Hood shootings in Texas.

2. Images have more power than almost anything you write

The written text is about sequential argumentation. Visuals are about emotion and are associative, non-sequential and perceived as highly authentic. Even in this age of Photoshop, the idea that the camera does not lie remains persuasive. Images also persist in memory much more powerfully than written texts. Do you need to see the video of the World Trade Center collapsing to recall what those images look like?

Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, shooters have left behind an array of self-representing materials, presumably to share with the world through the media coverage that surely will follow their planned acts of violence. The Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, left diaries and videotapes and the school’s surveillance cameras captured them in the act. Seung-Hui Cho prepared an elaborate video of himself and mailed it to NBC News between his first murders in a Virginia Tech dormitory and his later rampage in the classrooms. Cho referred to Klebold and Harris as inspirational figures in his life. Shooters in Helsinki and in Germany have left similar self-representations. These images iconize the killers and can inspire copycat crimes, according to Marion Muller, a professor of mass communications who has been studying school shootings in Germany.

3.Don’t make heroes out of villains

What should journalists do with materials left behind by school shooters or, for that matter, by terrorists? In the elite American press, newspaper editors typically opt to play down images of the perpetrators, especially on their front pages. Tabloid papers do just the opposite. Television presents a more complicated situation. NBC argued that it had an obligation to air the Cho tapes, which they dubbed his video manifesto. But the Canadian Broadcasting Company took an altogether different tack, opting to show none of it. The web adds yet another layer of concern, because once an image is aired, it will be copied, posted and distributed globally, sometimes in a matter of minutes. While there is no formula for making decisions about these kinds of materials, there should be a guiding principle: Don’t make heroes of the villains.

4. Listen to your readers and viewers

Even 10 years ago at Columbine it was clear that parents, school officials and students had messages they wanted the news media to hear. In today’s interactive environment, we see whole communities coming together to influence news coverage. Some citizens want to “anonymize” school shooters and have urged bans on their images, videos, photos and even names. The idea being that tabloid photos in which the shooters are shown with guns in macho poses and online tributes to killers lead to hero worship and encourage imitation.

Today’s news circulates globally, so the question of where to draw the line between journalistic responsibility to document and inform and the responsibility to show restraint involves another dimension: Is the journalist’s real responsibility to the local community or is it farther reaching? The answer largely depends on how a news organization defines itself. But the bottom line is that journalists cannot ignore the voices of their core readers and viewers.