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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

An Ethics Report Card: 3 Dilemmas for News Coverage of Mass Shootings

Woman speaking to the press

Woman speaking to the press

Subramaniam Vincent

AP photo - John Minchillo

Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own. 

Extensive research indicates a consensus on the responsibilities of the news media for mass shootings coverage. One ethical dilemma is on naming the shooter itself. The second is about reporting on the manifesto, and the third lies in the differential portrayals of shooters based on race. 

The first two dilemmas are the core of the media’s role in the social contagion effect, which has received wide coverage recently. Multiple researchers working independently have demonstrated that media coverage, because of the power to amplify and offer fame, can trigger a social contagion effect, where one shooting may spark more copycat shootings. 

This post calls out all three dilemmas, and reports on the media’s progress in each. 

The shooter naming dilemma

Should news reports name the shooter? It appears that this dilemma has largely been resolved and “do not provide notoriety” is now accepted as a norm in American news organizations. Some newsrooms have adopted a policy of only publishing the perpetrator’s name once—and never in a headline, wrote Joan Donovan in 10 tips for reporting on mass shootings on Harvard Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resources site. 

“What didn’t work in 2015 is working now. Journalists everywhere are convinced. The practice has been codified in newsrooms across the country—so much so that with this most recent shooting, there was no need to remind journalists what the policies are,” wrote Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and research organization.

The score: Going by Donovan and McBride’s work, journalists are responding to the call of ethics more than otherwise. A leading example of the culture shift is the Washington Post’s series on naming the victims from recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, and their special print edition, taking 12 pages to name 1,196 victims from 165 shootings over 54 years. What’s missing is a list of newsrooms in America that are proud of saying that they have adopted #NoNotoriety. This will likely induce others to join in. 

Further reading: 

The reporting on the manifesto dilemma 

An emerging pattern has been mass shooters releasing manifestos online often just before their killing spree. Some questions for the news media here are: 

  • Should journalists, in their desire to be comprehensive in reporting on hate-ideologies that motivate the shooter, quote plainly and extensively from the manifesto at length? Or should they paraphrase heavily?
  • Should links to manifestos be provided in the stories? 

News has the power of amplification—which can do both good and harm. The consensus on this broader dilemma has been to use two principles. One is to avoid amplification harm, i.e. journalists in their writing must not repeat the hateful and discriminatory messages from the manifestos. Journalists in their quoting especially should not yield to the framing set up by the haters. 

Writing in The Guardian last year, George Lakoff and journalist Gil Duran, the founders of Framelab, said this: “First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.” Lakoff is a noted cognitive scientist and linguist. 

Likewise, in 10 tips for covering white supremacy and far-right extremists, Denise-Marie Ordway of the Harvard Shorenstein Center wrote: “Avoid letting white supremacists use their own terms to describe themselves.” As an example, she cites Joan Donovan’s critique of journalists unthinkingly accepting the term “alt-right,” which was coined by a white nationalist leader. “When people started calling themselves white nationalists or members of the alt-right, journalists were not questioning their belief system, nor were they tying it to any other historical antecedent. That lack of history meant that this group could successfully rebrand,” Orday wrote quoting Donovan. Donovan recommended that journalists use their own words to describe these groups truthfully, to avoid assisting in their soft re-branding. “Call it white supremacy,” Donovan said. 

On the question of links, that people search for it is clear. Try this: in Google search, type “El Paso mass shooter manifesto…” and the autocomplete function instantly shows “El Paso mass shooter manifesto pdf.” This indicates people are searching for the PDF file, hopefully linked somewhere. 

The score: On the question of reporting on the manifesto, the score for the mainline media is not clear at this time. This needs more research, but one good sign is that the media has itself been carrying many op-eds recently about this. That itself is raising the profile of such critique. On manifesto links, there has been substantial progress. For instance, it is hard to find links to recent mass shooter manifestos in news articles.

Further reading: 

Disclaimer: Outside of news sites, access to manifestos on the Internet can still appear on community message board sites (like 8chan) where the links remain until the post with the manifesto is itself taken down. Even there the links could easily get downloaded and recirculated online through other sites. 

Consistency in the portrayal of mass shooters across different races

Another ethical issue is the differential treatment in American journalists’ portrayal of mass shooters. A number of news research studies have been focussed on this and point to the risk of reporters either reinforcing stereotypes when shooters are people of color, or downplaying legitimate risks when the shooters are white.

In one study released this year, media researchers Mohamad Hamas Elmasry and Mohammed el-Nawawy analyzed Los Angeles Times’ and New York Times’ coverage of mass shootings in Las Vegas in 2017 and Orlando in 2016. In Las Vegas, the perpetrator was a white, non-Muslim American. In Orlando it was an American Muslim of Afghani origin. (Can a Non-Muslim Mass Shooter Be a “Terrorist”?: A Comparative Content Analysis of the Las Vegas and Orlando Shootings)

  • “The Muslim perpetrator was called a ‘terrorist’ in about 38% of articles about the Orlando shooting. The non-Muslim perpetrator was labeled a ‘terrorist’ in 5% of articles about the Las Vegas shooting.”
  • “Meanwhile, about 55% of articles focusing on the Orlando massacre described the perpetrator as a ‘gunman,’ compared with more than 80% of articles about the Las Vegas killings.”

The researchers warned that when journalists downplay white male identity in violent crimes, it may “prevent the public’s learning about the potential threat of white male shooters.” 

In another wider study of news articles, researchers Scott Duxbury, Laura Frizell, and Sade Lindsay, writing in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, found that white or Latino shooters were much more likely to receive the mental illness frame than black perpetrators. (Mental Illness, the Media, and the Moral Politics of Mass Violence: The Role of Race in Mass Shootings Coverage.)

  • “The odds that white shooters will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 19 times greater than the odds for black shooters,” Scott Duxbury and his colleagues wrote. 
  • “The odds that a Latino shooter will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 12 times greater when compared to blacks.”
  • “White shooters framed as mentally ill were also shown as suffering from extreme life circumstances, and almost never when the shooter was black. When black shooters received the mental illness frame, they did not receive a testament to their good character, nor did the reporters claim the shooting was out of character.”

The score: On this front, the score on progress is again unclear. The studies pointing to the problems themselves are recent and more studies are going to be needed to identify changes in reporters’ frames. 

Further reading: 

On balance, the overall score is that the American news media is making some progress. There has been positive movement on naming and not making manifesto links easily available. On portraying shooters, the jury is out. Very likely, even to test whether ongoing changes in newsroom practices are widespread enough, more research may be needed. 

A note on reporting around the ‘mental illness frame’

The mental illness frame is often slapped around mass shooters in news coverage and is a problematic one.  First, let’s define the word ‘frame’ in the context of thinking.

  • Frames are the mental structures that organize our understanding of everyday life. Words have meanings, and those meanings reside in frames, according to Lakoff. Communicating values happens best through frames, says Lakoff.
  • In social theory, frames are a scheme of interpretation—a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events.
  • As a tool for thinking, a frame works just it does in a photograph. Except in thinking, it encompasses meanings and ideas in a rigid structure.
  • Frames drive reasoning and therefore are powerful tools in the battle for public opinion.

Credence for the mental illness frame comes from suicidal tendencies in shooters. A suicidal tendency makes someone want to take their own life, i.e. harm themselves. But recent mass shooters in the U.S., it appears, were also radicalized on the Internet on sites like 8chan (now shutdown), independent of suicidal tendencies. Radicalization makes mass shooters want to harm others. “Propaganda plugs right into (the brain’s) neural networks, dialing down the degree to which we care about other people,” said David Eagleman, Social Neuroscientist at Stanford University, on PBS' Brain series.

The inclinations to both harm oneself and others have come together in mass shooters. Therefore the mental illness frame does not by itself fully capture the mind of a mass shooter. It oversimplifies the picture and activates sympathy for the shooter while also diminishing responsibility. The ethical dilemma for journalists, like for other framing dilemmas, is to not simply repeat the framing used by politicians and other leaders with various agendas of their own. It is not the focus of this piece.

Aug 20, 2019

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