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WI: Is the media an accomplice in mass shootings?

By   /   December 17, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

IN MOURNING: A Newtown, Conn., resident shows her support in a sign. (AP photo)


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Within a few hours after the first shots rang out at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.,  ABC News revved up its marketing machine.

“ABC News will provide continuing coverage of the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut across all broadcasts and platforms,” the network stated early Friday afternoon in a widely distributed news release.

“World News Now” with Diane Sawyer was set to anchor a special edition of the nightly news “from the scene of the shooting.”

“20/20: Tragedy at the Elementary School,” too was scheduled to broadcast from the scene of the carnage leading into the 11 p.m. local news.

“Nightline,ABC News Radio, ABC NewsOne, the networks affiliate news service, all would have the very latest coverage on a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children, six adults, and the 20-year-old  gunmen.

ABC wasn’t alone. Just about every broadcast news network, plenty of online general news sites, newspapers, talk and news radio, and more promoted and delivered on wall-to-wall coverage of the Newtown massacre.

WMTV, the Madison NBC affiliate, for instance, led its Saturday10 p.m. newscast with four different mass shooting stories, following an update from Connecticut. Much of Milwaukee’s Fox 6 website on Monday morning still was devoted to the elementary school shootings, including several Wisconsin angles. Same with Wisconsin’s daily newspapers.

They all, ultimately, did a grave disservice to society, Dr. Park Dietz, a forensics psychiatrist, told Wisconsin Reporter.

“It’s the same old broken formula that spurs more crimes,” he said. “That is a sensationalized accounting of what’s occurred, arousing the emotions of the audience in various ways, not just sadness, and a portrayal of the shooter as larger than life in a way that incentivizes some of the vulnerable people in the audience to become just like him.”

Dietz, president of the California-based Threat Assessment Group, has spent the past 25 years breaking down the minds of mass murders, from John Hinckley Jr. to the Columbine High School shooters to the shopping center attacker who nearly claimed the life of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona.

During the past two decades, Dietz has admonished the media at large to avoid publicizing mass murderers’ names or the vivid details of the acts, in the same way many news outlets decline to report on suicides. He said he understands and accepts that the local market will and must report on every last detail, that there’s a rightful communitywide hunger for the information. Dietz said there is no reason doing so on a national basis.

“To stimulate and energize people with sirens, flashing lights, images of tactical teams responding, images of bodies being carried out, serves no useful purpose, and it does add to the stress and trauma of daily life, even for normal people,” he said.

More so, Dietz contends mass murder, like some incidents of suicide, has become a copycat tragedy among minds predisposed to such acts of violence.

He recalled a conversation he had with John Hinkley, Jr., the would-be assassin who shot President Ronald Reagan and members of his security detail reportedly as a way to draw the attention and affection of actress Jodie Foster.

“In an interview I had with him, he told me that he debated for months, ‘Should I do a mass murder? Should I do a skyjacking? Should I do a murder-suicide with Jodie Foster? Should I do an assassination? Which one is more likely to get me on the cover of Time Magazine.’”

But what Dietz proposes feels like an abridgement of the First Amendment to journalists and strong advocates of a free and open press.

Beyond, the First Amendment question, Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., argued there is no scientific basis to restrict reporting on mass murders. Unlike journalism’s unspoken code of not releasing the names of rape victims for fear of silencing the victim, McBride said she’s seen no statistical data that suggests “coverage of mass shootings lead to more mass shootings.”

“I would be reticent to suggest any sort of censorship or restriction of information based on speculation,” McBride told Wisconsin Reporter.

Journalism in a democracy responds to “clear scientific evidence” and to the market, she said.

There certainly seems a market for news on mass shootings, and news outlets have obliged.

“Network journos scrambled to get interviews with shaken students who were in the school when the shooting began. There were dramatic reports of kids and staffers running out of the buildings as they heard the sound of rounds being fired,” Variety TV news reporters  Cynthia Littleton and AJ Marechal wrote.

Viewship spiked in several markets throughout Friday and into the weekend, according to several reports.

TV news editors from WMTV in Madison and at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee did not return calls from Wisconsin Reporter concerning their coverage and ratings.

McBride said it’s a mistake to look at the media as some sort of monolith. She noted the New York Times coverage of the Connecticut shootings Sunday, for instance, was a relatively small portion of the full paper, though it was at the top of the front page. TV, McBride said, is a single-platform information provider, able to offer only one story at a time. It had to decide whether to go all-in on the Newtown story.

“News organizations have an obligation to understand what audience needs and wants,” she said.

And news consumers have more choices than ever, McBride said.

“Increasingly, the power is with the consumer,” she said. “For consumers to suggest that they don’t have that freedom — well people like to complain.”

Wisconsin has been the site of some of the more deadly mass shootings this year, including an attack on a Sikh Temple, and killings at a Milwaukee-area salon.

In the aftermath of the most deadly school shooting in U.S. history, the conversation shifts to ways of preventing mass violence.

Wisconsin Democrats on Monday say they want answers as to why so many mass murders have taken place in recent months. State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said he wants to set up a bipartisan commission to study mass shootings.

“The one simple step that could reduce the number of mass shootings in America is for journalists to voluntarily change how they publicize them,” Dietz, the forensic psychiatrist asserts.

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.