The Media’s Complicity in Granting Fame to Mass Killers


mass shootingThis is the age of fame for fame’s sake, the strange loop of becoming famous for becoming famous, where Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube create instant celebrities whose only achievement is becoming an Internet celebrity.

An entire generation is growing up craving shortcuts to the public spotlight, hoping for that one offbeat “viral” video that can catapult them from obscurity to national recognition.

The desire for fame is the need to prove we existed, to cheat the eternity of death, to show we mattered, to leave a mark in the minds of others in the hope that they will remember us. It is the deepest of all needs, the existential urge to mean something, to be somebody.

For a small segment of individuals, who are either evil, barbarically murderous, mentally ill, easily manipulable by the language of hate, or some combination thereof, a mass killing is the surest and quickest path to “being somebody.” It is no coincidence that of the 12 deadliest shootings in the United States, six have happened from 2007 onward. The advent of  social media and the rise of instant celebrities creates the unrealistic belief that fame requires no training, no hard work, no accomplishment. Anyone can be famous for any reason – or for no reason at all.

With the proper cocktail of guns, racism, misogyny, hate, mental illness, gullibility or evil, some young men choose the surest path to fame: mass murder. Society must deny them that fame. Censor their names. They do not deserve to commandeer the national spotlight by taking the lives of others. Make them invisible. Refer to them as “the killer” or “the murderer.” Obscure their face.

In 2012, after the horrific Aurora shooting, David Kopel wrote an impassioned plea to deny shooters the celebrity they seek:

How the media covers one event affects whether there will be similar events. That is why TV broadcasts of baseball games turn the cameras away from nitwits who run on the field, seeking attention. Media coverage also affects copycat murders — by encouraging more of them.

Nearly two decades ago, Professor Clayton Cramer detailed how mass killers obsessively study the publicity which the media have given to previous killers. His 1993 article “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media,” won a journalism award, but it didn’t change media behavior.

A 2004 book by Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines provided a horrifying litany of examples in which media coverage of one killing has led to copycat killings. Sometimes the attention given to a teenage suicide leads to more teenage suicides. Often, the media attention given to a mass killer lead to more mass killings.

After the Columbine High School murders in 1999, the media were particularly irresponsible, as when Time and Newsweek magazines put pictures of the killers on the front cover. In 2007, the Virginia Tech murderer sent NBC News a videotape of himself. Rather than showing that video on national television, NBC should have made a copy for law enforcement and refused to broadcast the killer’s self-promotional video on television.

Alex Mesoudi digs deeper into the effect of media frenzies on nascent killers:

Mass shootings such as these are now invariably followed by a media frenzy, particularly since the emergence of 24-hour rolling news channels seeking to fill their airtime. Commentators can often be heard arguing over the single cause of mass shootings: the availability of guns, mental illness, violent movies and video games, poor parenting, high school bullying, and so on.

Despite the confidence of many of these commentators in their views, empirical research into mass shootings is far less conclusive, and points to a confluence of factors. The availability of guns surely plays a role, as indicated by the sudden drop in mass shootings in Australia following a ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. But while the availability of guns is necessary, it is surely not sufficient.

Some perpetrators may suffer from some form of mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder, but the frequency of psychosis or severe mental illness amongst mass shooters is surprisingly rare. The effects of violence in movies, television and video games continues to be studied and debated: violent video games can trigger aggressive behaviour in a laboratory setting, but whether this extends to real-life cases of mass shootings is uncertain.

One potential cause of mass shootings that receives little attention in the mass media, however, is the mass media themselves. It may be that, simply by devoting continual, non-stop coverage to these events, the media may be encouraging ‘copycat’ mass shootings. … In simply devoting so much time and attention to mass killers, the mass media may be – unintentionally – conferring prestige and success onto them. For certain individuals, this may trigger a copycat effect and result in another mass shooting.

Ari N. Schulman explains the exhibitionist motives of mass killers:

Eric W. Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies, in his 2009 book “Serial Murderers and Their Victims,” writes, “massacre killers commit a single and final act in which violence becomes a ‘medium’ to make a ‘final statement’ in or about life.” Fantasy, public expression and messaging are central to what motivates and defines massacre killings.

Mass shooters aim to tell a story through their actions. They create a narrative about how the world has forced them to act, and then must persuade themselves to believe it. The final step is crafting the story for others and telling it through spoken warnings beforehand, taunting words to victims or manifestos created for public airing.

What these findings suggest is that mass shootings are a kind of theater. Their purpose is essentially terrorism—minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself.

Kopel, Schulman and Mesoudi are absolutely right. It is long past time for the media to block this brutal shortcut to fame.

Alarmingly, the opposite is the case in the Charleston church shooting. Every major media outlet is featuring the killer’s face and name, granting him importance he doesn’t deserve. He is just another murderous young human male – they’ve existed for millennia and they will for ages to come. In this case, racism was his driving motive. In other cases it’s misogyny, or pure bloodlust, or even boredom.

No need to plumb the depths of this murderer’s life and mind. We know the evil that festered in it. We know racism is alive and well, but we’re not going to eliminate it by ceding the national spotlight to a single heinous 21-year-old who is now basking in the personal attention he’s getting from millions of viewers and readers.

The media, and anyone who publicly disseminates this barbarian’s face and name, are gifting him his day of infamy when they should be erasing him from public memory and focusing exclusively on the lives of the victims. Shame.