The Media and Mass Shootings: The Contagion Effect, Covering the Shooter, Photographs, and Politics — Beat the Press with Emily Rooney

On Beat the Press, host Emily Rooney is joined by a panel of media critics to take you behind the scenes of the world's biggest and most influential media outlets featuring unusual moments that capture the public's opinion.

This week's panel of guests includes Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience Magazine, and Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University

By Matthew McGuirk

Episode 8 (2)

The Media and Mass Shootings: The Contagion Effect, Covering the Shooter, Photographs, and Politics — Beat the Press with Emily Rooney

On Beat the Press, host Emily Rooney is joined by a panel of media critics to take you behind the scenes of the world's biggest and most influential media outlets featuring unusual moments that capture the public's opinion. On this episode, Emily is joined by Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience Magazine, and Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University to discuss the role of the media in covering mass shootings in the aftermath of shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

Media Contagion — Does the press contribute to shooting contagion?

Between academic studies and TED Talks, the idea of a contagion effect has been connected with media coverage of mass shootings. Given the prevalence of shootings in the United States, the Beat the Press panelists discuss the media's responsibility in covering these events and whether or not the coverage motivates future shooters.

A news conference about the begin with a camera pointing at a news anchorEmily: "I think there is a contagious effect. And by the way, I think that we don't do enough to separate out the types of mass shootings. Over the weekend, there were reported dozens and dozens of mass shootings. They're different genres … And I do, however, agree that this idea that by reporting all this stuff, we're suggesting, 'Hey, why doesn't somebody try to kill more than 19 people in an elementary school?'" 

Dan: "It's not the sort of thing that we can't report, so I think that what we need to think about is, 'How do we report it?' I think that the worst thing we can do—and yet it's what we see from cable news — is to just go live and stay there on and on and on again … I do think that studies show that this saturation coverage of mass shootings is possibly leading to more of them, and I think that we have to step back and say, 'How can we do this in a better way?'"

Lylah: "I don't think you can only blame the media for a contagion effect. I think that when you talk about the media, people are usually talking about the big cable news stations. But people are also getting this information, this wall-to-wall coverage, from social media, from Twitter threads where people are just spinning off on their own about their own theories, [and] from blogs and Facebook groups where people talk about conspiracy theories. And I think all of that together is where the contagion is coming from, not just the traditional media." 

Joanna: "The events that have transpired since the mass shooting at the school in Texas have proven why it's important to have media coverage. That is because the party line, the line that came from law enforcement from the moment it happened, turned out to be, in many ways, misleading and wrong. You have to have that media watchdog group … and in that sense, the more, the better. The more watchdog coverage, the more people are holding public officials to account after these events, the more you get to the truth."

Naming the shooter — Should the media report the shooter's name?

Whenever these incidents occur, some reporters and anchors simply refuse to name the shooter in an attempt to deny them whatever glory they may have been seeking. CNN's Anderson Cooper is known for following this policy, for instance. This leads the Beat the Press panelists to discuss the effects of this technique and whether or not it is a good standard to follow when reporting the news. 

Emily: "I would challenge almost anybody to come up with the names of most of these people. Most people can do Newtown, Adam Lanza. I can do Parkland, Nikolas Cruz. I couldn't tell you the Orlando nightclub guy's name. I could not tell you the Las Vegas [shooter's name]. Those people killed more than 50 people … I come down on the side of it's a point of information. You got to report the name. But I agree with Lylah, it doesn't have to make them a big media star."  

Dan: "One of the guidelines that I look at is a group called NoNotoriety, which grew up after one of the terrible shootings … The point that they made is exactly the point that we're making. Initially, you have to report the name of the shooter. But after that, you don't need to keep repeating it. And I have to say, I think that most news outlets have been going along with that. I've seen very few invocations of the names of the shooters in Buffalo or in Uvalde. It seems to me that the media are doing what they've been asked to do, and again I don't know if it's making any difference." 

Lylah: "I'm torn. I think that when the name is released when the name is discovered, that's news. That is a point of fact. I think people want to know who did it … But once it's been reported once initially, I don't think it needs to be brought up over and over and over again. I don't think we need to do the old-fashioned print [news] thing of recapping every point that we've come up with before in every story going forward. I would be in favor of reporting the name when it's released and then just referring to them as 'the shooter' after that and not calling more attention to that person." 

Joanna: "Most of the coverage that I've read has mentioned the name of the shooter once and then referred to him as 'the gunman' through the rest of the story. It has not diminished the impact of anything or my understanding of the event, and I think if that is the new media standard, that's terrific."

Photographs — Should the photographs of murdered children be released?

Despite the frequency of mass shootings, lawmakers are often criticized for their failure to effectively address the political issues at hand, such as gun control. CNN's Jake Tapper recently suggested that maybe releasing the photographs of the slaughtered children would force our politicians to step up, and this prompts the Beat the Press panelists to discuss the value of such an idea. 

Emily: "I come down on the side of this that the photographs should be released, not to change the course of legislation [but] because it's part of the news cycle. It's what happened. I've been very consistent about this my entire life. 

Dan: "I am coming down on the side of not publishing the pictures. I don't see that it would do any positive good, and I think it could do a great deal of harm. The kinds of people who are turned on by this might be inspired to do more. The gorier the pictures, the better, for their twisted purposes."

Lylah: "No matter what photos are released or aren't released, you're going to have a segment of the population that believes these are crisis actors and none of this really happened, or that it's a red flag operation and it was staged. You will not be able to reach those people no matter what you do."

Joanna: "I think it's part of the story of what these AR-15 weapons can do. It's part of what needs to be a public understanding about how these weapons work."

The politics of guns — Is it ever too soon to bring the politics of guns into media coverage following a shooting?

In virtually all mass shootings, people who immediately voice their support for gun control legislation are criticized for "politicizing" a tragedy. In this segment, the Beat the Press panelists debate this belief and discuss if it is ever "too soon" to address the political issues surrounding mass shootings. No Firearms Allowed Sign, An red road sign with handgun icon and not symbol with blue sky background

Emily: "I would argue, once again, that it's never too soon to bring it up. Even while Uvalde was unfolding, I was flipping around, but I was mostly on CNN. They were bringing up the issue of gun legislation. They were saying that it didn't make any difference in Sandy Hook, it didn't make any difference in Parkland, [and] it's unlikely to make any difference this time. You kind of want to hear that … There was so much other misinformation coming out that day, [so] why not discuss something else that we know is a real underlying theme to all of these shootings?"

Dan: "It's not politicizing the issue to immediately start asking, 'How can horrible events like this be prevented in the future?' One of the possible pieces of legislation that's being discussed is an expansion of red flag laws. Well, how do we make that work the way they're intended? One of the most shocking aspects of the Buffalo shooting was that the shooter had apparently threatened to shoot up his school, and the police questioned him under the red flags, and he was somehow able to convince them that he was joking. Well, how did that happen? It's a horrifying thing to hear, but it's also an important public policy question." 

Lylah: "Talking about how did the shooter get an AR-15-type weapon, how do we prevent people from getting their hands on this weapon in general, why does anyone need this weapon, [and] what ways are there to prevent the spread of these weapons, all of those are legitimate things that there is never a good time to talk about other than right when it's happening, right when you need to know. Otherwise, it gets shoved to the background until there's another incident and people don't want to talk about it."

Joanna: "Legislation is part of the story because legislation is how people get access to these weapons in many cases. It certainly was in the case of Uvalde, Texas, where this was an 18-year-old who, the day he turned 18, was able to walk into a store and, with no background check and with no questions asked, was able to purchase these weapons and this ammunition … Access to guns is part of the story, and so the laws that create that access to guns are part of the story."