An excellent Wall Street Journal column last week by Ari Schulman ("What mass killers want - and how to stop them," Nov. 8) honed in on how hype-driven media coverage of mass shootings likely encourages more angry young men to engage in them. He argued that, "There is a growing consensus among researchers that, whether or not the perpetrators are fully aware of it, they are following what has become a ready-made, free-floating template for young men to resolve their rage and express their sense of personal grandiosity." To reduce their number, he asked, "How might journalists and police change their practices to discourage mass shootings? First, they need to do more to deprive the killer of an audience." Among his advice to that end:
- Never publish a shooter's propaganda
- Hide their names and faces
- Don't report on biography or speculate on motive
- Minimize specific and gory details
- No photos or videos of the event
- Talk about the victims but minimize images of grieving families
- Decrease the saturation
- Tell a different story
Back in June, your correspondent was invited to speak at a national Investigative Reporters and Editors conference at which I addressed this subject, offering similar observations: Back when I was coming up in the journalism field a quarter-century ago, I told them, reporters were taught to write articles along what was described as a reverse pyramid model, with the lede expressing the most important take-away from the story and anecdotes and personal details of individuals involved buried deeper down in the article.
That all changed, though, when the Wall Street Journal famously began publishing stories on their front page, left-hand column, that all followed the same format: They began by telling the story of a single individual in a compelling, dramatic fashion that had more in common with fiction writing than how journalism schools taught their students. Then the articles would draw broader conclusions from the anecdote, with contextualizing information buried deeper in the article, often after the jump to an interior page. These articles were powerful for the same reason fiction writing can sometimes tell more truth than non-fiction - we all identify with personal stories and the format encouraged readers to put themselves in the shoes of the person in the featured anecdote.
Today, though, that method has become ubiquitous and virtually every story about crime follows that format, with institutional, cultural and other big-picture analyses relegated to the back end of stories if they're emphasized at all. Start looking for the phenomenon and you'll notice it everywhere. This practice, I told the conference-goers, has limits that most news outlets have come to ignore. Telling stories of individuals may promote a truth but seldom the truth. There are too many other people out there whose truths are ignored by the model and too many institutional dynamics that just don't fit into the framework. The approach encourages the media to pick and choose which stories to tell based on which ones are most likely to push their readers' buttons. The tragic deaths of black girls in Chicago or Houston may not merit a blip on the media radar screen, while the death of a cute white girl from Florida can dominate national media coverage for months.
The rise of this brand of coverage also changed how lawmakers govern in relation to crime and punishment, spurring the creation of countless laws named after dead children or high-profile victims ("Jessica's Law," etc.) that boosted punishments or minimized civil liberties. After this went on for many years, reformers got into the act, too, which is why it took the "Tim Cole Act" to compensate Texas' DNA exonerees or the "Michael Morton Act" to require Texas prosecutors to open up their files. If the media insists on covering crime this way, I told the conferees, then reform advocates can and will manipulate their coverage just like the tuff-on-crime crowd. But really, the journalistic approach does everyone a disservice and distorts the process, no matter which "side" benefits in any given instance.
Mr. Schulman's right that media coverage of mass shootings has become counterproductive and harmful. I just wish more journalists could see that the same is true even of workaday crime reporting. In its rush to tell us compelling stories, journalism is losing its ability to tell us the truth.