Is a ‘responsible media’ a fading memory?
It’s one of those anniversaries most would rather forget: April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School shooting. Two high school seniors murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher, and they shot and injured another 21 people before they committed suicide. They also brought bombs to the school, so the carnage could have been much worse.
Twenty years later, the tally of school shootings and mass killings continues to mount. That shooting and its aftermath changed this country, but rather than coming together to find ways to reduce random mass shootings we’ve instead become numb, seemingly accepting the reality that they are part of life in 21st century America.
After the deadly Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting in 2012 — 12 dead, 70 wounded — one victim’s parents started an organization called No Notoriety. It was a call for those reporting on these events to not make the shooters famous. Tom and Caren Teves used their son’s senseless death to make a plea for responsible media coverage. You can check their website, but here’s No Notoriety’s mission statement:
No name. No photo. No notoriety. The quest for notoriety and infamy is a well-known motivating factor in rampage mass killings and violent copycat crimes. In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we challenge the media — calling for responsible media coverage for the sake of pubic safety when reporting on individuals who commit or attempt acts of rampage mass violence, thereby depriving violent like minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave.
I wonder if that is possible: can society count on the media to be responsible in how it covers any event? The problem, from my perspective, is that word, “media.” That one noun encompasses such a broad range of outlets, from this small weekly newspaper to giants like USA Today to cable television talk shows to agenda-driven websites run by individuals who often have nefarious motives. This explosion of media made possible by the internet, unfortunately, means there is little hope that a plea for responsible coverage is achievable. For some, being responsible is the opposite of why they blog or why they post to websites.
Truth is, I’ve spent countless hours and used up gallons of ink in arguing for a free press. If you believe in the First Amendment, then you also have to embrace that fact that people should have the right to express opinions and thoughts that most of us would deem vile or despicable.
With that right to freedom of expression, however, comes responsibility — at least for most of us. That’s what’s missing in the proliferation of outlets reporting on the news today, and it was one of the first lessons I learned in my journalism career.
My first full-time job was as a reporter for The Zebulon Record, a small weekly covering a small town in Wake County, just outside Raleigh. My publisher was Mark Wilson, who is the brother of former Mountaineer publisher Ken Wilson. I learned a lot from the Wilson brothers, and among those lessons was the need to constantly weigh your responsibility to journalistic ethics, your community and the public’s right to know. Publishing decisions are not always easy, and so you need to think things out but also trust gut instincts.
Back in Zebulon, we had gotten wind of an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally. As a young reporter, my adrenaline was pumping when the police chief called me to his office and informed me that they had requested a permit for the rally. I imagined photos of hooded men with swastika armbands carrying crosses and Confederate flags and such, perhaps a clash with counter-protestors.
Mark, however, shut me down immediately. We won’t cover it, he said. We’re not going to give them what they want, which is publicity and their 15 minutes of fame, he said. When I think back on that now, I remember how Mark didn’t even have to think about it. He knew what we should do, had obviously been through something like this before.
Twenty years after Columbine and seven years after Aurora, the media landscape is ever-evolving. Mass shootings, unfortunately, still occur all-too-often. Access to guns and our abysmal mental health system are a large part of the problem, but we in the media also have a role to play.
I don’t remember the name of the Columbine shooters, or the Aurora killer, and I’m not sure if they left some kind of manifesto or statement. I won’t name the perpetrators, and the No Notoriety mission is something I’ll consider whenever a question arises about reporting on senseless acts of violence.
Maybe we have learned something in the 20 years since Columbine. At least I’d like to think so.