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A CNN vice president told the filmmakers, “As far as using the names of the people who committed the crime, to me, I understand why that bothers the folks who lost children there, but that just is not something I could go along with.”
Twenty years and more than 230 school shootings later, reporters and media consumers have plenty—in fact, too much—experience covering and sharing news about these tragedies. But balancing the demands of journalism, human curiosity, and the well-being of survivors remains a work in progress. Headlines such as “Does the Media Have a Problem With Coverage of Mass Shootings?” have a tendency to appear after these events, as do warnings to not let “voluntary restraint … cross the line into censorship,” as a USA Today editorial put it in 2015. Still, evidence suggests that coverage is improving, and every new shooting brings a fresh round of guidelines for interviewing survivors, identifying shooters, minimizing the risk of copycats, and using social media as a reporting tool.
Missing from much of this coverage, some journalists and media critics argue, is an emphasis on solutions journalism, and in particular substantive examinations into how mass shootings can be prevented. Last November, after a gunman killed 12 people and injured 18 more at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, Lois Beckett, a reporter who covers gun violence for The Guardian, tweeted: “In the face of an increasing number of mass shootings, media outlets give intense coverage to the terror and the trauma of these events, but almost no coverage of solutions, including solutions ordinary people can use.” In another tweet, Beckett wrote, “I am sick of media outlets making a case for hopelessness and stalemate after the latest mass shooting. There are ways to prevent some of these shootings. But people don’t know about them because WE DON’T COVER THEM.”
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An example of what Beckett was advocating for could be found following a January 2018 school shooting in Benton, Kentucky, in which the 15-year-old shooter reportedly used a handgun taken from his parents’ bedroom closet. The day after the shooting, the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism cooperative that covers Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, published a story on child-access prevention laws, which hold gun owners liable should children access their firearms. The ReSource reported that the laws work in states that have them, and in some cases have reduced accidental gun deaths among children by as much as half. Kentucky, the ReSource noted, is not one of those states. Last August, The Washington Post followed up with an investigation into the enforcement of these laws.
Anniversaries present additional opportunities for media outlets to examine the role and influence of their coverage, but these often come at a cost to survivors. Even the most well-intentioned and journalistically sound stories can prove painful to people already feeling increased levels of anxiety. For many in the Columbine community, the days and weeks leading up to April 20 are especially difficult. The Columbine teacher Kiki Leyba and the former principal Frank DeAngelis have both reported crashing their cars in April, with DeAngelis having done so six times in the years following the shooting. “I always tell people that April is a hard month for me,” the Columbine teacher Paula Reed told NPR last year.