Celebrate the heroes, not the shooter

We don't know the Newtown gunman's motive. But the coverage could inspire other troubled people to become copycats

Published December 17, 2012 7:02PM (EST)

I’m not going to use his name in this essay. None of us should use his name. Ever again.

Following a shooting at a school in England in early 2009, a forensic psychiatrist told the BBC about his plea to media outlets worldwide:

If you don't want to propagate more mass murders...

Don't start the story with sirens blaring.

Don't have photographs of the killer.

Don't make this 24/7 coverage.

Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story … not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero.

Do localize this story to the affected community and as boring as possible in every other market.

Why don’t we listen?

There is compelling evidence that the way we cover mass shootings, especially in America, gives too much attention to the shooter, in effect turning him into a celebrity and creating a perverse incentive for other social outcasts to seek the spotlight through carnage.

After opening fire on a mall full of Christmas shoppers in Oregon just last week, the young man in that incident shouted, “I am the shooter!” and then committed suicide. He wanted everyone to know he did it. As if the media wouldn’t plaster his picture on our screens 24/7 either way.

Consider this analogous evidence, reported by the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers following the mass shooting in Norway in 2011:

A study in 2004 looked into the coverage of the suicide by gun of an Austrian celebrity.  The largest Austrian newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, sells widely in the eastern states of the country, but sells little in the west. It reported the suicide closely, while other newspapers gave it little attention. The study, by researchers at Furtbach Hospital for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, found that the number of firearm suicides went up in the areas where the Kronen Zeitung sells well, but not in the areas where it does not.

The other consequence of focusing so much on the shooter is that we then scrutinize his (or her) life history, psychology, motives, etc. We fixate on individual causation (“How could he have done this?”) as opposed to the broader trends and structural factors. And so the media obsesses over the Connecticut shooter’s childhood and his relationship with his mother — instead of the fact that the same brand of semi-automatic rifles was used in at least four other mass shootings since 1999. Maybe we should focus less on the past of the shooter and more on the future of the Bushmaster .223 and its parent company, the perversely named Freedom Group. And while we’re at it, let’s focus on the one thing that all these mass shootings have had in common — namely, guns.

I’m not saying the Connecticut shooter was just a narcissist seeking attention. Like most who commit these crimes, the shooter was clearly deeply disturbed and suffering from mental illness — a dynamic made all the more dangerous by easy access to deadly weapons. And yet he didn’t just kill himself. Without any other apparent motive, it’s conceivable that the shooter believed that mass murder was a path to infamy, a sick remedy to the social isolation that had plagued his life. Media fanfare did not cause this shooting. But a lack of fanfare about the shooter could prevent future attacks.

Instead, let’s spend more time telling the stories of the victims than the shooter. After all, 13 years after Columbine, we’re still more likely to remember the names of the shooters than their 13 victims. Right now, everyone knows the name of the Connecticut shooter — but we should know everything about Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, who bravely chased down the shooter and tried to tackle him before being fatally shot.

Hochsprung and Sherlach and the many teachers and students who acted bravely in the face of this tragedy are heroes. Their pictures are the ones that should be plastered on the fronts of newspapers, with their names and stories repeated for eternity.

By Sally Kohn

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Alex Lanza Newtown Shooting Sandy Hook