The Infamy Game: Thoughts on How Not to Cover Mass Shootings

"I think if I squint I can just about make out the face of a killer. Isn't the news brilliant?"

The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, near Selçuk, Turkey  (Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone remember a fourth-century-B.C. Greek named Herostratus?

He's the guy whose name history has recorded solely on account of his having burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in 356 BCE -- so that history would record his name.

In a 1993 paper called "Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media, published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Clayton Cramer explored a variation on the question The Atlantic's Robert Wright is rightly asking now, following Roger Ebert's New York Times op-ed on Friday: Given that intense media coverage of mass killings (a) plays straight into the perpetrators' tendency to want recognition for their crimes, and (b) encourages copycat iterations, can major media outlets police themselves not to play into these dynamics?

Wright's question: "... is it too much to hope that a norm along those lines could develop? That major media players -- the Times, the Washington Post, the major broadcast and cable news networks, for starters -- could agree to stop featuring images of accused mass killers?"

Cramer's, almost 20 years ago:

Can we develop a code of ethics that resolves this problem? Let us consider the following as a first draft of such a standard: "A crime of violence should be given attention proportionate to its size, relative to other crimes of violence, and relative to the importance of its victim. Violent crime of all types should be given attention, relative to other causes of suffering, proportionate to its social costs." We must develop a strategy for dealing with this problem now—before another disturbed person decides to claim his fifteen minutes of fame.

Can we develop such a code of ethics? Maybe. But we won't—if "we" means the media organizations Wright suggests might now take the lead in changing U.S. national norms on massacre coverage.

Cable networks thrive on ginning up drama around figures like the "Batman shooter." It's at least conceivable that The New York Times or The Washington Post might adopt a Cramerian ethics code. As Wright puts it:

It may well be that media outlets that embraced this norm would for days at a time suffer a loss of audience share—especially in the beginning, before the norm caught on. But the establishment and sustenance of norms almost by definition carries a cost. The idea is that the cost born by some in the name of the norm is outweighed by larger societal benefit. In societies that are functioning well, this kind of thing happens when it's needed.

There's a logic of supply and demand here, though, and it isn't straightforward. It might be in the big print-based players' long-term interest to adopt an anti-deathsploitation norm to distinguish themselves from the exhaustingly low interpretation of "news" cable-news networks get into. But in a media environment driven by cable-news networks to the extent that ours is, it seems likely that these networks would simply win out—and unlikely that too many people at the Times or the Post would end up bewildered about why their moral leadership hadn't brought on a new pan-media consensus.

So how could things ever be different?

One way is that, rather than merely adopting a code, and promulgating a norm, about not featuring certain things in their coverage of mass murder, our better media can do what our better media has always done as a matter of vocation: It can go on the offensive against those responsible for social exploitation -- in this case, other media outlets.

Courtesy of Helen Lewis at New Statesman, there may be no better model here than Charlie Brooker after the Winnenden school shooting in 2009:

Another way, and one that may stand a greater chance of working in the near term, is that consumers with Internet access start using the social media now at their disposal, and growing like crazy, to make the point themselves. Here, e.g., are Patton Oswalt and Peter Burns doing just that. If you don't think this can work, take a look at those social adoption rates—or the traction gained by, e.g., the Invisible Children or Greenpeace social campaigns.

We'll never see the last Herostratus. But we don't have to help a Tim Kretschmer or a James Holmes think he's the next. Anyone with a Twitter handle can raise the issue with any media outlet in the U.S. today as emphatically as Brooker did with virtually every major media outlet in the U.K. three years ago: "Repeatedly showing us the face of a killer isn't news; it's just rubbernecking. ... this sort of coverage only serves to turn this murdering little twat into a sort of nihilistic pinup boy."