Opinion: Should media reduce their coverage of mass shootings?

Jul 21, 2022, 7:00 AM | Updated: Aug 2, 2022, 10:25 am
Indiana mall mass shootings...
FBI agents gather at the scene of a deadly shooting, Sunday, July 17, 2022, at the Greenwood Park Mall, in Greenwood, Ind. (Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
(Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

SALT LAKE CITY — I can’t stop thinking about the news this week involving mass shootings.

A mass shooting last night in Indiana. 4 people dead. Court appearance for the mass shooter who killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida.

A legislative report was released after police allow 77 minutes to pass before acting in Uvalde mass shooting. Nineteen children and two teachers dead.

Court appearance for the man accused in the racially motivated mass shooting in a Buffalo, New York mass shooting.

All of these stories were reported by our station and others on one day. Just one day.

And we wonder why people can’t handle the news anymore?

Let me say this first – I love the news. The news is my career, my passion, a significant part of my life. But at the same time, I think when it comes to reporting on mass shootings, the news is hurting us, personally and collectively.

The potential for copycats when we report mass shootings

First, let’s look at the numbers. Before 1999, there was approximately one mass shooting every six months. Fast forward to today. There have been 250 mass shootings in the first six months of 2022 alone. I don’t pretend to be an expert about all of the variables that go into that meteoric rise in devastation, but I know there is research into the effect that media coverage has on encouraging other mass shooters.

Studies show that the more attention a mass shooter gets, the more likely the event will inspire a copycat. A 2017 study found that media coverage of a mass shooting may increase the frequency and lethality of future shootings for much longer than two weeks.

We’ve made improvements in reporting mass shootings

Some mass shooters have openly claimed they wanted fame. In response to the knowledge that these criminals are seeking notoriety, many of us in the media, including here at KSL, are now not saying the name of the shooter. (Occasionally a network anchor will say the name, but I have not read a shooter’s name in a story in recent memory.) Is that an improvement? Yes. Is it enough? Not in my opinion. Here are some other strategies I think we should consider:

  1. Avoid in-depth descriptions of the shooter’s rationale. That only serves the desire for fame and attention.
  2. Limit the overall coverage. I understand, to a certain extent, the desire to report that there has been a shooting, although I think we could debate that. Once the shooting has been reported, how many more times should we report? How much time should we spend on it? How many hours? Days? Weeks? This all feeds into the notoriety the shooters seek.
  3. Limit any and all sensational details of the events, both before, during and after the shooting. The sound of gunfire, screams, anything of that nature is not necessary. It glorifies violence and fear.
  4. Limit more detailed and updated versions of the story to written form. Direct listeners and viewers to written updates online. If listeners want more details, and some will, we can update stories on the website regularly, but not in audio and visual form.

Effect on us personally

I know my experience is not the norm. I read these stories several times an hour for four hours every morning. I continue to read and research throughout the day. I am much more exposed to the news, including news of mass shootings, than the average person.

But I would be willing to guess that your exposure is still more than you’d like or need. How does hearing about a mass shooting affect you? The first time you hear about it, you might feel sad. Perhaps you’ll sigh, and think “not again.”

The second time you hear about the story, you may start to feel the weight of it. There is a weight to hearing about anything of this nature, but especially when children are involved. We humans can only carry so much weight on our spirits before we are scarred by it in meaningful ways.

Here is where I have had respectful points of disagreement with colleagues in years past. When I’ve suggested that we cover mass shootings in particular, and crime in general, less, the response is usually, “we don’t make the news, Amanda. We cover it.” True, but we decide which of the millions of pieces of information we could share in the 60 minutes of every hour are important enough to share.

So, in a very real way, we decide what the news is. Is it a given that a mass shooting is news? If it happens out of state? If it’s the third one this week? If it happens in another country? If we’ve already reported it once? Ten times? See where it gets murky?

Our listeners are the most important

After three decades on the air at KSL NewsRadio, my focus always comes back to our listeners. What information can I share with them that will best serve them? What do they need to know to help them make decisions in their lives? I never want to keep information from anyone because I’m too squeamish or Pollyanna, but I don’t want to pile on because horror is clickbait.

Somewhere in between these extremes is the important balance, but ultimately, we must all find it for ourselves. We in the media are the first line of defense.

Amanda Dickson can be heard along with her colleague Tim Hughes on KSL NewsRadio’s Utah’s Morning News, 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., Monday through Friday.

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Opinion: Should media reduce their coverage of mass shootings?