HARPER: Newsrooms make tough calls in covering mass murders

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The replays of the infamous YouTube video and the excerpts from the manifesto of the Santa Barbara killer underline an ethical debate news organizations should have: How much coverage should murderers get?

News organizations cannot simply ignore events like those last weekend in California. But journalists can downplay the attention the killer gets. For example, I don’t intend to use any of the names of mass murderers in this column.

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Reporters argue that readers and viewers want to know why someone committed such egregious acts. That’s certainly true for part of the public. But I think many others would like greater emphasis on the victims.

Precedents exist for some forms of self-censorship. For example, journalists can legally reveal the names of rape victims, but most news organizations choose not to do so. After 9/11, most news organizations eventually decided not to use the video of the attacks except after a review from top editors.

If you look at recent examples of mass murders in Aurora, Newtown and elsewhere, the killers suffered from mental illness and were consciously looking to gain notoriety.

Even though the evidence of copycat killers is only anecdotal, a respected journal, “Homicide Studies,” criticized the media for their sensational coverage of the more dramatic mass murders, which, in fact, make up a small percentage of such events.

“There is a definite downside to media overexposure,” the journal said in its December edition, “and that is the possibility that some like-minded and obscure individual will see an opportunity for recognition.”

The extensive media coverage tends to make people think the number of mass murders in the U.S. has increased. In fact, an analysis in USA Today showed that incidents have remained the same over much of the past decade. According to the examination of various databases, 137 people died in 30 mass killings in 2013. That is roughly the same as the rate since 2006, which counts an average of 147 victims in 29 mass killings each year. The information was not intended to minimize the pain and suffering of the victims’ families. Instead, it was to demonstrate that the media tended to focus on the sensational and the emotional tragedies rather than the actual trend in mass murders.

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“Mass violence carried out in broad view, often with a deranged gunman bent on sending some sort of message, horrifies the public and draws intense media coverage that far exceeds the violence with smaller numbers of victims or in homes or other private places,” the newspaper wrote. USA Today also noted that these killings accounted for roughly 1 percent of all murders nationally.

Those that received far less publicity but were far more common, the newspaper found, involved family killings, which made up just over half of the mass murders in the country. A mass murder is defined as an incident involving the death of at least four people. Oftentimes, the killer experienced long-term depression. Also, a recent event, such as a divorce, the loss of a job or concern about money can trigger the killer’s actions.

As someone who covered one of the largest mass murders in history at Jonestown, Guyana, I have thought a lot about how the media should report on such tragic events. It’s time to take a hard look at how we cover these killings. I believe the news media should create policies to limit the use of sensational videos and killers’ manifestos, which may increase readership or viewership, but simply give notoriety to those who commit these heinous crimes. That would be a good start for more responsible news coverage.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51.

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