Media Matters: Why The News Needs To Stop Covering Mass Murders

Media Matters is where I look at some current event or trend in the media and make fun of it, while at the same time possibly downplaying how serious of a problem it actually is because we would all be sad if I didn’t.

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I already had something planned for today’s post. I had a light hearted joke piece sitting in drafts all ready to go. But I can’t publish that. Not now. It’s not right.

I should probably warn you that this article is going to be quite unfunny, but I feel that it is important enough to write about, and I think most people would agree. I’m not going to get into the politics of it, even though this is as good a time as any, nor will I talk much about the victims and their families. The last thing they need is another blog post discussing their lives.

On Friday, I cried.

As soon as I heard what had happened, I knew what was going to happen next. The news media were going to have a field day with this. Even though I’m writing this in advance, I will guarantee you that come publishing day, this event will still be close to 24-hour coverage. Here’s why we should stop doing that.

The 24-Hour News Cycle is Not Equipped to Handle This

The invention of the 24-hour cable news channel was a transformation in the way we consume news. The idea was that instead of an evening recap of the day’s events or a daily morning paper, any breaking news can instantly be transmitted, and then, like a virus, it propagates itself through every news network until literally everyone has mentioned it. The problem is, this method ensures super-quick delivery and total inaccuracy.

One of the main problems is that after the announcement of a tragedy like this, the media has to sit and wait for details to come out of the woodwork. They do this for two reasons: A) the public demands it and B) they want to be the first to report something (“You heard it here first on Channel 5…”). Because of this pressure, networks are much more likely to report a rumor as fact, which just spreads disinformation. Even if they express that what they are saying is just a rumor, the viral effect of information (the telephone game, essentially) ensures that it will eventually become known as a “fact.” So in this case, the number of deaths fluctuated between 10 and 30 and the timeline of the tragedy changed 50 times.

In an ironic twist, the old style of media is actually much more adept at covering the biggest stories. When a newspaper publishes the next morning, it contains the entire known story, with all the facts and interviews necessary to paint a complete picture of what’s known as of the time of publication, written as if the person reading it had never heard that it happened. This is the only way to do this accurately. The 24-hour media reports things as they hear them. They don’t want it to appear like they are sitting on their asses waiting for word from the police, so they analyze every bit of information, trying to answer unanswerable questions (Why would someone do this?), and trying to breakdown the events even though they have zero idea of what they are talking about.

On top of this, they call in experts who don’t know any more than they do, and pundits relay their opinions based on this same misinformation. These opinions and rumors all get milled together into a giant heap of bullshit. (I feel it’s my responsible duty as an American to let you know that clip is decidedly British in nature.) This not only guarantees inaccuracy, but it causes stuff like this to happen:

It Creates Accidental Victims

As of this writing, the shooter has been identified as Adam Lanza.

When the facts were being sorted out, a misplaced ID was the basis of a rumor that his brother, Ryan, was the killer. So he posted this on his twitter:

Ryan Lanza Twitter

As he was getting harassed more and more, he became increasingly pissed off. This screenshot came from someone who is Facebook friends with him.

Ryan Lanza FB

So this poor guy was attacked by the news for a crime he didn’t commit. Even though a dead guy couldn’t possibly be posting on Facebook, he and his friends likely got threats and calls from the media. In other posts I saw, his Facebook friends sighed with relief when they realized it wasn’t him. But the harassment was so bad that he had to shut down his Facebook account.

So at some point after this rollercoaster ride, he must have found out that it was his brother who committed the crime. Because the media jumped so quickly to conclusions without evidence, they made his day unnecessarily worse. At first I thought, “Gee, he could sue the shit out of them for that and become a millionaire.” But then I remembered his entire family is dead and that his name is forever tarnished, because every time someone Googles him, this will come up. His life is ruined twofold, because the media was thirsty for juicy facts. If you think I’m wrong, just look at history. A “Trial by Media” will destroy you.

Additionally, the news thought it appropriate to interview children from the school right after this happened. Testimony can be important, but for God’s sakes, leave these kids alone. Every one of them is going to have PTSD from this. Their idea of “school” has been tainted forever. The last thing they need is a fucking camera in their face. As for the killer himself:

It’s Giving Them What They Want

You may have heard that the news media doesn’t traditionally report on suicide, unless there is a big story behind it (celebrity, etc.). The reason for this rule was that they thought it would inspire copycat behavior in others. They believe that by glorifying the act it becomes more socially acceptable. The CDC recommends that suicide be covered as objectively as possible, avoiding such things as detailed methodology and speculating on motivation, since suicide is usually caused by a number of compounding factors.

Strangely, the media covers homicide with the exact opposite intentions. The plan of attack is broken down in excruciating detail, and specifics, like where and how the weapons were obtained, are analyzed. It’s almost voyeuristic how obsessed the news is with the killer’s lifestyle. What videogames did he play? What was his family like? What did he eat for lunch last Wednesday?

A serial killer knows that he will achieve infamy by committing a heinous crime. By showing his pictures and talking about his life, you give him exactly what he was looking for. A legacy where none is deserved.

People Continue To Believe Untruths About The World

Did you know that violent crime is the lowest it’s been in a decade? Of course not, you watch the news. Who would believe that when every other day there is a new crazy person who opens fire on another group of civilians?

The media’s constant coverage ensures that the world will never feel as safe as it actually is. Think about how much safer life is than long ago. There are no plagues, there are no world wars happening, nuclear annihilation isn’t (that) imminent. Life expectancy is higher than ever.

We have to come to terms with the reality that at any time, somebody can kill a huge number of people fairly easily. It’s as true now as it always has been and as it always will be. But at the same time, we can’t be so paranoid about our fellow humans that we assume that will happen. Our social contract, our entire lifestyle, functions on an “I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me” attitude. When that is broken down, it can be jarring. But it’s important to remember that most people, those millions of other people who play violent videogames and watch violent movies, and, if I’m being honestly fair, who own guns, do not do these things. If they did, our world would be Mad Maxian, and since I haven’t seen a young Mel Gibson around, I can assume it’s not.

If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it’s that this should be the most bi-partisan political issue that we could ever hope to tackle. Not a single sane person in the world supports child-murder. And yet I suspect nothing substantial will be done to prevent this kind of thing in the future. At the very least, the media needs to take it down a notch. Don’t get me wrong, people should absolutely be aware that this happened. But the national media should objectively report the incident as quickly and concisely as possible. Provide a place in which condolences or donations can be sent, and then move on. Let the local news coverage be more in-depth, and leave these families alone. And don’t, under any circumstances, mention the killer, any speculation about the killer, or show any goddamn pictures of the killer. Unfortunately, as long as media business practices continue as usual, I don’t think much will change. Oh well.

I apologize. I’m sure this isn’t up to my personal humor or research standards, and to be honest, I’m writing this emotionally, which is usually a big no-no. Some of this may even prove inaccurate in the near future. But I really felt it was important to talk about this in a timely way, as I think this incident has shown more than ever the shortcomings of our media system. Maybe in the future I’ll really dig into the politics, but I’m not level-headed enough right now, so I’ll let those articles speak for me. Anyway, I’ll be back later in the week with the article I was going to publish. I promise it will be funny.

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