Will the Media Ever Stop Publicizing Mass Shooters?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last Wednesday, several days after the massacre in Orlando, a reader wrote:

I think Notes is the best place to vent my frustration. Dear Media:

Please stop publishing pictures of the Pulse shooter. Whether or not martyrdom was part of his mindset, constantly referring to him by name and publishing his picture creates infamy where there should be none. Relentlessly publishing photos of the shooter (even worse, selfies), he becomes more important than the victims. It iconifies him, and if he did indeed do this act in the name of Allah, it reinforces him as a martyr by giving him more of an identity than the victims. I think he deserves to be stripped of an identity.

On that count, the homepage of The New York Times did a commendable job:

Here’s a novel thought from a reader: “Perhaps we could name the perpetrators of mass shootings in a manner similar to the naming of hurricanes. Instead of names, real or made-up, we could use a series of number/letter combinations to refer to the gunmen.”

Another reader, Jamie, has also been frustrated with media coverage of the Pulse shooter:

Given the resurgence in public interest in the phenomenon of mass shootings following the tragic events in Orlando, there’s one factor that seems to be overlooked—specifically, how the modern media landscape inspires copycat killers. The Atlantic has previously ran several excellent articles on the subject, including “Are Mass Shootings Contagious?” and “The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders. Here’s How.

I am personally of the opinion that this is the single most persuasive explanation for the increase in mass shootings.

Pointing towards guns may seem a simple and intuitive explanation, particularly when comparing the U.S. against other countries. However, that explanation fails to explain why the problem of mass shootings is so much more pronounced in today’s America, as compared to itself only a few decades ago.

That’s true: According to an in-depth report from Mother Jones, for example, there were at least 81 mass shootings (defined by the indiscriminate killing of at least four people) between 1982 and June 2015, and 45 of those shootings—over half—occurred since 2006. Here’s a chart of that spike, along with other charts illustrating the era of mass shootings. Back to reader Jamie:

The arguments regarding mental health also suffer a similar deficiency. While the shortcomings of our mental health system are well known, I don’t know that anyone would claim that things were somehow better in years past.

The phenomenon does, however, fit well with changes in the media landscape, specifically the rise of 24/7 cable news and the internet. While mass shootings have happened sporadically throughout our country’s history, Columbine was the first time where the nation watched events unfold live on television. It provided the template for all attacks to come, with subsequent mass shooters regularly citing their predecessors as inspiration. It put the phenomenon of the mass shooting squarely into the public psyche, in a way that would have been impossible in the era of the daily paper and the nightly news.

It seemed that the media was beginning to seriously consider its own role after two of its own were gunned down by a disgruntled former reporter in Roanoke last year. In his manifesto, the killer stated the inspiration he took from previous shooters, his desire for infamy, his respect for Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho (who would hold the record for deadliest shooting until the events in Orlando). He even reported on his own deed, taking first-person video and posting it on Twitter.

Unfortunately, that moment of self-awareness on the part of the media quickly passed. Now we’re back to the same old arguments and debates of the past.

Back to that endless debate, here’s reader J.R. in tiny Hancock, New Hampshire:

I’m responding to the reader who said gun control won’t accomplish much, because most murders are perpetrated with handguns, and mass murders still occur in countries, like France, who have tighter gun control than we do. These are false arguments. If handguns are used is most murders, then let’s make it harder to obtain, and carry a handgun. Heresy? Hardly, since many countries do just that, and they have much lower rates of murder-by-gun than we do. Yes, there was a mass murder by gun in Norway a few years ago. Yes, there have been a couple of mass murders in France where the killers used guns. But those are anomalies, rare events that are rare because of gun control.

BTW, I am a hunter and a gun owner. Our inability to strictly regulate gun ownership is a pathetic failing, driven by misguided, wrong-headed gun advocates.

This next reader would probably agree with J.R.:

Obviously the framers of the Constitution needed a way to legitimize the fight for independence, and the 2nd Amendment is the result. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to adhere to the interpretation that keeping and bearing arms is an inalienable right. In which case, I would theorize that all of the founding fathers understood that the weapon of war in that day, the musket, was rather unreliable and inefficient in the task of ending human life.

Fast forward to today. I think that most citizens would feel very comfortable with everyone having access to a musket. Even the mentally unstable, or a prospective terrorist, could have access to one and in general the public would not fear for its safety.

As the concept of weaponry follows the natural course of technological evolution, guns will be become smarter and more deadly. Would the right to keep and bear arms extend towards the future of weaponry as well? Imagine when firearms are mounted on drones and the unstable civilians can commit nefarious deeds from the comfort of their living room. I’d dare hypothesize it isn’t a question of if but when.