Responsible Media in Tragic Times

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December 19, 2012 by liebestropfchen

We are still searching for a motive in the CT elementary school shooting. We may be for a very long time. The more coverage we have in the media about the man behind the gun, the more I feel disgusted that I’ve even seen that monster’s face. I spoke previously of my views on gun control, and I would eventually like to talk about mental health as it relates to violence. Fortunately, I feel I must explore a bit more research before doing so. In lieu of that topic, I wish to discuss the role of social media in the news cycle.

As the details of the story began to unfold on Dec 14, social media sites were on fire with pictures, stories, and speculation. As we later discovered, a large portion of the details being reported on television and radio news stations were incorrect or fabricated – the shooter’s brother was named as the prime suspect, the shooter’s mother was erroneously reported as a teacher in the school, and we heard of the shooter’s family member hiding in the woods with a rifle ready to take more people out. Those kinds of errors were attributed to the speed and gusto with which the media wanted the nation to hear about this awful crime, and the reporters opted for verbal diarrhea rather than saying “we will bring you information as it is confirmed.” In the years before 24-hour cable news or the Internet, news reporters had time before the 6 o’clock news to check facts and obtain multiple sources for details, which would lessen the threat of naming the wrong person in a crime or running a story based solely on hearsay.

Within minutes of these jumbled reports, the actual shooter’s brother (who we now believe took no part in this horrible crime) had his face and name splashed all over social media outlets, with obscene remarks and wishes for his soul to be damned for all eternity. “Here’s the asshole!” some said, with a picture of an innocent man’s face…and the photo went viral. How awful, in the wake of such tragedy and sorrow, that this man was not only accused, but tried and convicted in the court of social media within seconds, and it was based solely on news stations reporting false information. I may have missed it..but has anyone heard an apology?

Had this been a lesser crime, where media attention was rampant but the circumstances were not so poignant, perhaps the perpetrator’s brother would feel the need to prosectute for slander. The legal ramifications of a seemingly innocent post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or (does anyone still use) Myspace are increasing in number and severity. I foresee the next decade will bring more accountability to what we share on social media, including prosecution for derogatory comments or photos, even if the poster was duped by a viral story or photo.

This has happened already regarding the practice of “sexting” among underage teens. I heard of a case in which an 18-year-old male was dating a younger female, and she had sent nude photos to him. After they broke up, he jokingly sent one of her photos to numerous other students in their school, which tarnished her reputation. Eventually the case went to court, and the 18-year-old was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. In addition, any other person who merely forwarded the picture to another student was guilty of the same crime.

What starts as “holy shit, look at this!” ends up bringing criminal charges to a teenager…and this viral nature of pictures, videos, and stories happens all the time in social media. Someone like the CT shooter’s brother need only to bring the case to court, and any person who shared his photo as the shooter on their page/wall/circle could be in danger of liability for slander. Seems severe, but it’s not unreasonable in the eyes of anyone whose name could be defamed due to negligence from news reporters.

As easily as we can spread false news, we can also cross a very thin line into the realm of rewarding monsters for their heinous acts by bolstering media coverage. As we try to piece together a solution (no matter how far-fetched or difficult) for how we deter mass shootings, part of what we as a society need to do is to refrain from sharing these monsters’ faces and names in a viral fashion. When tragic situations occur, in which the suspect has taken his own life and the lives of others in the act of trying to make headlines, we should not give these monsters the satisfaction. Who is he? What was he like? Where did he come from? WHO THE EFF CARES, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HE WAS LIKE. HE IS A MONSTER, GET HIS PICTURE OFF MY TV!!

While we should definitely honor the victims and heroes by sharing their stories, we should not utter the shooter’s name any more than we must for the sake of letting society know “the killer is known and accounted for”. I refuse to mention this cretin by name, and I never will. I hope someday I can forget his name, for he is now eternally accounted for in the bowels of American history, along with that guy who used to eat people.

Don’t get me wrong, social media can be powerful if a fugitive is on the loose and needs captured. Facebook proved very useful in the case of Lynn Jackenheimer this past summer, when her killer fled from authorities after confessing the crime to his family. Posting the killer’s picture on social media helped familiarize the public with his face, and he was eventually captured (thankfully, the media reported the case and the involved suspect correctly, rather than giving his brother’s name or something). But these mass shootings are a much different scenario – these perps do not plan to be fugitives, they plan to die or be captured in the massacre. Pictures of the dead or captured perpetrators only give them media buzz, which they do not deserve.

Keeping in mind those in the news media are paid top dollar to be the first and the best when reporting news, asking for discretion or morals when reporting these things is a very lofty goal. The responsibility begins with us, as citizens and as humans, to use discretion in sharing the names or pictures of those who wish to destroy humanity to have their names immortalized. When we feel incredibly powerless against these monsters, the greatest weapon we have is to deprive them of their goal, and give them NO media coverage for the senseless crime they committed. The biggest middle finger I can think of when a sociopath wants to be immortalized for a shock-and-awe tactic is to deprive them of the awe.

We must also hold news media accountable for reporting details accurately rather than quickly. Speak up, write your congressperson, give feedback to media sources, and demand better behavior of our reporters. Maybe…just maybe…a lack of media attention will deter someone from shedding blood in the name of fame.


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