By now I do not think it is a stretch to describe the mass shooting as a truly American phenomenon. To be sure, similar kinds of shootings happen in other countries, but nowhere do they happen with the frequency and sense of post-hoc helplessness, where even scores of dead children fail to sway federal lawmakers to act, as in the United States. Like chronic unemployment, this is a deeply troubling trend that will be a way of life for many Americans in the years to come; for those who want or hope to perpetrate such acts; those who will become their victims; and those who will bear witness to such events, in person or through the media.
Like any other chronic societal ill, the causes are many but some are more significant than others. With mass shootings it is generally the notoriety of the act that gives the shooters the encouragement they need to carry it out. The very nature of the act, with its multiple mostly randomized victims and gruesome violence, almost guarantees they will get the attention they crave.
But the shootings, no matter how gruesome or deadly, don’t publicize themselves. That is the job of the media, which in this context mostly consists of news outlets. This may be changing now that digital technologies have made news gathering and dissemination more accessible to the layperson and not simply the province of a reporter who has the backing of fact-checkers and editors. But I would venture to guess that most people still receive their first full story of a news event — the one that shapes a person’s view of the event and its cast of characters for the remainder of the news cycle — from an outfit like the Times or CNN or even Fox News.
There is an inherent social value to the work done by these organizations. It is the public’s right to know when certain things happen in the community or around the world. So important is the news-gathering function to society that we have laws which in most circumstances prohibit the government from forcing reporters to divulge their sources even when doing so would serve an equally important societal good: the prosecution of criminal activity. Such is the essence of self-governance, and is what distinguishes a democracy from say a totalitarian form of government.
But what happens when the reporting that is supposed to be done for the good of the public actually produces a net negative for that same constituency? What if the reporting on mass shootings is so poor and so sensationalized that it contributes to more acts of violence even while giving the public the information it needs to govern its own affairs, information that might involve something as mundane as knowing not to venture into an area that is the scene of a massive manhunt or criminal investigation?
News reporting is now more than ever something to throw at the public hungry for distraction and entertainment. It is its own reality show but with minimal production costs. It is something to put on between commercials or to throw up on a webpage to increase or “drive” web traffic. It is in other words the ideal medium through which another neglected, mentally troubled youth can experience his delusions of grandeur and feel empowered doing it.
I confess that I don’t know what effect, if any, the media’s portrayal and reporting of mass shootings has on the motivation and determination of those who end up carrying out these acts. And I hope that someone decides to conduct a lengthy comprehensive study on this, if one has not been done already. But if the conclusion of such a study suggests that there does exist a positive correlation between the two, as I suspect will be the case, then it should fall on the shoulders of the journalists themselves to regulate what may be their own involvement in a problem that is quickly growing out of control.