In the perpetual cycle of U.S. school shootings, are media to blame?

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Photo via Twitter screen-grab

This morning, another report of an active shooter on a college campus was issued, this time at Ohio State University. Although it does not appear guns were used in the attack, the suspect allegedly drove a vehicle into a crowd of students and used a butcher’s knife to stab several nearby individuals. By the afternoon, 9 people were in the hospital with injuries, and the suspect was dead.

The U.S. has been no stranger to school shootings. A 2013 article by the Harvard Political Review laid out some recent statistics that demonstrate the dichotomy between the U.S. and other countries in terms of frequency of these incidents:

“Between November 1, 1991 and July 16, 2013, there were 55 school shootings in America with at least one fatality and more than one intended victim. In the same time period, no other country had more than three such shootings.”

Why does the U.S. see so much violence in schools? One factor may be the “copycat effect” that the U.S. media seems to perpetuate by celebritizing assailants and minimizing victims through selective coverage. An article by the Denver Post highlighted the Virginia Tech school shooter’s obsession with Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. According to the report, Seung-Hui Cho referred to Harris and Klebold as “martyrs” in a media package he sent to NBC News shortly before the shooting. Just as the assailant, who fatally shot 32 students, intended, the media aired regular coverage of his homemade confession videos following the 2007 shooting.

2014 Seattle Pacific University shooter Aaron Ybarra was reportedly inspired by coverage of the Columbine shooters, as well as by Seung-Hui Cho. “He just made everything so exciting. He made hate so exciting,” Ybarra said in reference to Harris during a police interrogation, according to Daily News.

It seems, then, that the media should hold a certain responsibility in the way they chose to report on these tragedies. According to an article from Newsweek, there are several steps that reporters and news anchors can take to minimize potential copycat incidents.

“Be careful about rushing out with unconfirmed or early information or social media rumors, which turn out to be inaccurate or which will propagate myths,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in an interview with Newsweek. Shapiro also added that journalists should keep the post-mortem dignity of victims in mind when selecting images to accompany their reports. In addition, the Newsweek article advises against glorifying the shooter.

“To reduce copycats and lionizing, reporters have a special responsibility to portray with precision and accuracy the estrangement of these perpetrators, and to scrupulously avoid language or images that could romanticize their actions,” said Shapiro and Dr. Frank Ochberg.

Anderson Cooper took a similar approach in 2012 when he prefaced his report on the Aurora, Colorado theater shooter James Holmes:

“Before we go any further, I just want to say that I’m only going to mention the alleged shooter’s name a few times over the course of this next hour. Too often after a shooting like this the killer’s name becomes well known, and months, even years later, the killer’s name is recalled, but the victims’, the survivors’ names are not. I think that’s wrong.”

Perhaps Anderson’s approach should become the norm in covering these tragic events.

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