The media’s role in reporting mass shootings and walking a fine ethical line
By Son Ha Tran
Mass shooting. The phrase has been haunting people around the globe for years.
In January 2017, a lone gunman opened fire at a Quebec City Mosque, killing nine and injuring 19 others. Seventeen people died by a gun wielding shooter in the latest mass gunfire in a school in Parkland, Florida in February.
A mass shooting can be one of the most terrifying scenarios reporters have to deal with. Journalists rush out to the scene and approach as many witnesses and survivors possible to find sources for their story.
As the frequency of these incidents increase, it is important for reporters to consider the survivors trauma in order to deliver the news in a professional and ethical way.
But, there are concerns those types of coverage can cause negative impact on the audience. Carelessly reporting a mass shooting can result in inciting people to wrong behaviours, mentally damaging the survivors and cause stigmatization against others.
Ivor Shapiro, a faculty of communication and design and Associate Dean at Ryerson University emphasized the mandate of news media is to distinguish and verify.
“Ethically speaking, the duties of media are to make sure all published content are verified,” Shapiro says. “Our duty is reporting the incidents objectively and honestly.”
A study by Jennifer Johnston, PhD and Andrew Joy, BS at Western New Mexico University indicates that many perpetrators have tried to replicate the crime from a previous mass shooting.
The research stated that by speculating the perpetrator’s background, motives and methods many media outlets have likely been contributing to the development of the next shooters.
Gavin Adamson, associate professor and undergraduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism, says the copycat behaviours aren’t detected only in mass shootings.
“Copycat is concerned around mass shootings, suicide coverage,” Adamson says. “News media has been told many times by psychiatrists to not to give details about how the crime happened or the individuals involved.”
Andre Simons of the FBI’s behavioural analysis unit even confirmed this effect in a report released in September 2014.
“The copycat phenomenon is real,” Simons says. “As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks.”
Since then, the influence of mass shooting hasn’t stopped growing, in both domestic and global scale. But there are factors that facilitate the phenomenon.
Adamson says news media are being blamed for the growth of the replicating behaviours, but gun laws are the real culprit behind mass shootings.
“Let’s be honest, copycat doesn’t necessarily be the fault of news media,” Adamson says. “Basically, anybody has open access to guns. There are so many guns, which allows that sort of thing to happen.”
Fred Lum, a 33-year veteran journalist at The Globe and Mail, said those concerns cannot stop him from reporting.
“Blaming the media for copy cats is something that may come up and is understandable,” Lum says. “But to be honest, I can’t think of any event in Canada that led to copycats.”
Lum was one of the reporters who covered the mass shooting in Quebec in 2017.
“We’re not going to stop reporting on the fear that someone will be a copycat and I don’t have a problem with that at all, and most of the journalists don’t either,” Lum says.
President Donald Trump stated in a tweet that mental health was the main cause of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in Febru ary. These sorts of assumption have damaged people with mental illness for a very long time, even though it was statistically and scientifically proven wrong.
And news media plays a part in making the misunderstanding more serious.
“People with serious mental illness are considered dangerous” or “most of the mass shootings have been associated with mental illness” are just two of the many misperceptions that create stigma against people with mental health issues.
In their research Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, James L. Knoll, M.D. and George D.Annas, M.D. from American Psychiatric Publishing, December 2015, found that these kinds of tragedies are often the result of the combination of multiple complex factors, many of which are still poorly understood.
Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than one per cent of all yearly gun-related homicides in the U.S. The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crime is only about three per cent and even a smaller group of them are found to involve firearms.
Adamson, who also has studied on the misperception towards mental health illness and mass shootings, said news media plays a part in making the misunderstanding more serious.
“The audience and even the news media often wrongly assume that there’s some sort of connection between mental illness and mass shooting,” Adamson says. “Anytime there’s a mass shooting, people nearly automatically assume that there’s mental health issue involved.”
Carey French, journalism ethics professor at Humber College, believes that there are no right answers to the question.
“Even if the shooter actually has mental illness, and we know it for sure, should we mention that?,” French says. “The thing is, even though we avoid that fact, the audience would still presume that there’s mental illness issue.”
Lum says mental illness has become a usual target of criticism whenever mass shooting occurs.
“It’s just too easy for people to blame mental illness and often it’s used as a way to skirt real issues,” Lum says. “People were blaming mental illness for the massacre, as a misdirection, from the real problem – gun control and access to military level weapons.”
And the misperceptions are followed by serious consequences.
“It’s much more serious than we thought,” Adamson says. “People with mental illness are ashamed and less likely to admit or seek help from others.”
Mass shootings usually create an outpouring of public horror and frustration. Subsequently, people with mental health issues are potential victims of crime because of their condition and the misunderstanding of the public.
“When being impacted, mentally ill patients are likely to be targets of harassment, bullying, both verbally and physically,” Adamson says.
Experts and psychiatrist organizations concerned the bad influences might still be on the survivors, victims’ families and friends for a long time after the incidents.
Carelessly reporting articles can bring agony to them, but again, news media are not the sole root of the problem.
Mild to moderate stress reactions in the emergency and early post-impact phases of disasters are highly prevalent because survivors, their families, and community members accurately recognize the grave danger in disaster.
A research study by the U.S. National Centre of PTSD, U.S. published in 2007, stated that there are many traumatic stress reactions after the incidents with various levels of stress including shock, terror, blame, anger, guilt and hopelessness.
However, Shapiro said it’s nearly impossible to stop the trauma from spreading due to the advance of technology.
“The truth is news organizations no longer own the information space,” Shapiro says. “Videos are going to be taken, words are going to get out immediately.”
Taking extreme caution and consulting editors are two of the principles Lum follows when it comes to covering mass shootings.
“I believe in most cases a photographer will take whatever photos they come upon or find and leave it to the editors to decide,” Lum says. “Self-censoring is something we try to avoid.”
The most difficult task for Lum in covering these kinds of incidents is approaching and talking to survivors, witnesses and families of victims for reactions and commentary.
When it comes to reporting principles, French emphasized the editor’s role as well.
“The thing is, the time frame for the news to come out is so tight, and the competition is so fierce,” he says. “I believe the people who are in the position of editing, particularly, they have to be more skilled than editors ever have been.”
All reporters have to face the truth: these kinds of incidents are becoming more serious.
But Shapiro says those concerns about something we cannot anticipate will never stop us from reporting.
“Our role is not to think so much about the effect of the coverage that cannot be anticipated, but to think about accuracy and objectivity in the reporting,” Shapiro says.