Media must curtail shooter fascination

Chris Schafer

It’s easy to be worried about the United States these days. The nation’s economy is in the toilet, we are on the brink of war with Iraq again and our terrorist warning continues to fluctuate between yellow and orange. A year and a half ago we didn’t even have a perceived need for a terrorist warning system. Now, to top all of that off, the nation has a psychopath driving around the suburban Washington, D.C., area and shooting people for no reason. It’s easy to be worried.

Those in the media have never had it so busy, covering so many topics concerning our nation all at the same time. But of all the crises in this country, the Washington, D.C., area shooter or shooting team attracts the most attention. Perhaps it’s because the economy has been in a rut for some time now. Perhaps it’s because the outlook on Iraq is that of finally cleaning up a mess that’s been around too long. Or we’re just content to admit there’s a terrorist threat and we don’t want it graded.

None of these seem to be new topics to the public, but the sheer audacity of a murderer simply shooting people at random in broad daylight is so bizarre it necessitates attention.

But as our media professionals shower this topic with their coverage, air and print time, I ask that they show some restraint and realize the power of influence they have over individuals in our society today. I ask that they show both sides of the story in case it might halt others from trying to replicate the shooter’s hideous acts. I ask that they will follow the suggestions listed below.

ï Don’t romanticize the shooter. It is obvious the attacker craves attention and most likely watches his or her work reported on the news. Why cater to him or her? The media seems to be reporting on these attacks as though they are setting up the underlying plot for a box-office thriller, perhaps the next “Silence of the Lambs” sequel. This is not to say the media doesn’t have the right to report on the story – in fact they must – but reporters cannot allow themselves to use terminology that makes the attacker seem either overly cunning or clever.

For example, a reporter should never say that police are baffled or that the shooter is doing things simply to spite police or challenge them. Included in this idea is the shooting of an elementary school student last week after police said schools would be safe. This makes officers sound as though they are totally unprepared to deal with an individual of this strategic magnitude, one who is always one step ahead of them. In reality, it is the sheer random nature of the attacks that has slowed police in apprehending the murderer.

The media quickly jumped to report the news of the tarot card finding, linking it again to the killer’s brashness and perceived control over his or her situation. Before the media’s saturated coverage of these attacks resembled the hunt for Andrew Cunanan; since the tarot card finding, reporters have mentioned its subsequent comparisons to the Son of Sam killings. While the analogy holds merit, the media shouldn’t allow themselves to recreate one of the most horrific individuals in our history. The Washington, D.C., shooter needs a psychiatrist, not a promotions department.

ï Avoid using the term “sniper.” In this article I have not once referred to the Washington, D.C. area shooter as a sniper, simply because it isn’t. A true sniper is part of an elite job class held both within the U.S. military and law enforcement. Snipers are highly-trained, accomplished soldiers. The Washington, D.C., area shooter is targeting innocent civilians as they play in their yards, mow their lawns or put gas in their cars. There is nothing strategic about this person’s actions; the killer is shooting people simply for the point of shooting them. If the media wants to refer to the individual with some title, call him or her a shooter, but the term murderer is more appropriate. The Washington, D.C., area shooter is that and nothing more.

ï Remember your influence in society. Criminal acts of notoriety in this country always seem to happen in groups. The nation recently overcame the summer of kidnappings and, a few years before that, the era of school shootings. Will the random-shooter era be next? Hopefully not, and the media can have a big part in halting that progression.

The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School is unarguably the most infamous of all school shootings because of its location and the attack’s grand scale. And the media were very selective in how they covered the event, often displaying photos and life stories of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris on their pages and programs. It seemed the easiest way to make the cover of Newsweek was to shoot up your school and murder your classmates. Klebold and Harris soon became household names. We did biographies on the killers rather than remembering and celebrating the lives of the victims.

The grand scale of the Columbine attack and the media’s total saturation of the event was followed by other school shootings across this country. In each attack more of this nation’s youth threw their lives away by brandishing a weapon or had their lives stripped away as a result. Many could have been the result of copy-cat crimes.

This of course isn’t to say the subsequent killings are solely the media’s fault. While journalists do play a role in influencing the main body of the population, I still believe the lack of parent-child involvement is at the root of such deep-seated resentment and isolation. Yet, the media could have done more to ensure they weren’t romanticizing the story and making it into some horrific epic.

In the post-Columbine era, every media outlet opted for photos of Klebold and Harris in their own environment: high school photos, home photos or the disturbing school camera photo. None of them would touch the photo of their bloody, mangled bodies lying dead on the library floor, their ordeal at an end. It took years and the will of the National Enquirer to print those photos. The Enquirer was the only one to do so, and that’s just sad.

While the photos aren’t pretty or easy on the eye, they are the truth and the media has an obligation to show them. People need to see the disturbing result of such lunatic actions in the hopes it will halt would-be copycat criminals by removing this perverted sense of fame and glamour. They need to see the real end to such sick means. The media failed show both sides with the Columbine shootings, perhaps they won’t make the same mistake when it comes to covering the Washington, D.C., shooter.

It is my sincerest hope that the Washington, D.C., shooter will be apprehended and the killings will stop. But until that happens, the media must be mindful of how they cover this terrible story, since the shooter could use the saturation as an insight into the authorities’ plans and leads. It is important for the media, which can have a tremendous influence on public opinion, to keep that opinion toward the shooter as one of disdain and not fascination. The Washington, D.C., shooter is neither cunning nor clever; he or she is simply a demented coward whose time will come.


Chris Schafer’s biweekly column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]