Deathsploitation Check: Explaining Murder vs. Exploiting It

By J.J. Gould

What's the difference?

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The number of distinct motives for murder in human history, even the number hidden under God-knows what rooftops across the United States right this minute, is greater, I expect, than any crime writer or forensic psychologist could imagine. Maybe I'm wrong. But that's my guess. I can see how it might be comforting to think otherwise: that we could index these motives, that we could categorize them, trace them back to respective causes, and in some cases maybe know that we could take specific measures to prevent them from resulting in more murder. But I don't think that. It could be, as our own Robert Wright puts it (in summarizing his read on an argument I made yesterday), that ubiquitous images of James Holmes "encourage others who are mentally disturbed to follow in his footsteps," and so we shouldn't mention his name or show his face. But I wouldn't assume it. I wouldn't even assume that James Holmes or anyone he might inspire are mentally disturbed. I don't know yet. No one in the media does.

Still, we don't have to suppose very much about Holmes's motives to hit the question of what it means to cover what he did responsibly. In fact, we don't have to suppose much at all about his motives for suiting up with military-grade weapons and armor, and shooting down dozens of strangers in a movie theater last week, beyond the fact of his having done so.

Why? Because it would take a more dissociated mind than any mass murderer's on record for Holmes's decision to engage in a public shooting spree not to include the recognition that he'll be infamous for it. The perpetrator may be neutral about the prospect of his infamy, but he's more plausibly into it -- and he's almost certainly not averse. You don't have to have a firm stake in debates over the dynamics of "copycat killings" (which is tricky terrain with slippery slopes) to conclude that when the media sensationalize an act of mass killing, they're likely giving the killer something he wants, possibly the thing he killed for, and plausibly meanwhile giving another potential killer more of an incentive than he'd otherwise have to realize his potential.

The problem is, journalists may have a moral responsibility to do their jobs in ways that minimize the likelihood of causing death; but they have other responsibilities, too -- responsibilities that don't fit easily with a sort of Hippocratic Oath that would say, "Never do what may possibly cause indirect harm to anyone." The Atlantic Wire's Jen Doll makes the point that even if we could shame all of media into no longer taking advantage of Holmes's victims by sensationalizing their deaths (and we can't: "If you've ever tried to shame TMZ, ... you know this is something of a losing battle"), we shouldn't try to "punish James Holmes with obscurity." It wouldn't honor the victims, or serve any other real purpose -- except maybe a vain notion that Holmes would now be watching us "punish" him from jail. Covering the Aurora massacre right means understanding as much as we can, while we can best understand it, without letting the information become noise:

Seeing something too much is as dangerous as not seeing it at all; it becomes meaningless, just part of the media wallpaper that we begin to ignore. The most terrifying fact of all isn't that his name won't be forgotten to honor the victims, it's that his name will be forgotten because in this 24-hour news cycle, we've simply moved on to something new. Before that happens, let's do our best to learn what we can.

This is well put and, I think, right. But what does it really imply?

Charlie Brooker's argument after Germany's Winnenden massacre in 2009 wasn't, after all, that we should not know what to call Tim Kretschmer, or what he looked like. It wasn't that the public should be kept ignorant of any aspect of what motivated him to shoot 27 people, killing 11. It certainly wasn't that we should write him out of history (so impossible a task, incidentally, that not even the president of the United States could pull it off -- by refusing to name-check him in a speech or otherwise). It was that the media shouldn't exploit Kretschmer's victims or gratuitously risk encouraging imitators, either by turning news coverage of their murders into mindless entertainment, or by consuming it as such, or, worst of all, by tactily indulging the sensational conceit that he was "some kind of antihero."

It may be too bad that the media can't just follow commenter Brendan McCarthy's very punk-rock suggestion:

Just employ the qualifier 'LOSER' every time their names are mentioned. So for example a picture caption would read "LOSER joe blow," etc. Maybe news media should also include an apology alongside each picture, like, "We are sorry to have to show you this LOSER picture, but ..."

... without obscuring the loss of human lives with a kind of pat self-righteousness. But it can be vigilant -- and the public can be vigilant -- about what's news analysis and what's not. So when we see journalists filling airtime and trying to keep us hooked by passing the latter off as the former, we can check our heads; and we can check theirs with the best means we have available to us these days: 140 characters isn't a lot, but it can add up.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/deathsploitation-check-explaining-murder-vs-exploiting-it/260240/