Everyone is in shock after the horrible massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut yesterday. Nobody knows quite how to handle it. Even the president cried. So we comb through the details. We tell each other stories of heroic teachers, heartbroken parents, and the disturbed young man we all want to understand so we can stop others like him from ever causing a similar event.
Reporters trip over each other for each new detail and Twitter feeds clog with condolences and rallying cries. This is the natural way for this story to unfold; we don’t know what else to do, so we talk about it.
But we need to stop. We're making it worse.
By allowing this story to take over all of the news outlets, internet discussions, and even all of our thoughts, we're playing right into the cycle of large-scale violence. Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter is famous now, and I can't help but think that we're giving him exactly what he wanted. And, worse than that, that we're giving other isolated, angry young men some ideas of how they could leave their mark on the world.
Fixating on a mass murderer is like a much worse version of laughing when a toddler says a curse word for the first time. It's the natural reaction, but it only encourages more of the same. No matter how many times you say that something is not a good way to get attention, paying attention to it proves the opposite.
As we've heard over and over again, most of these mass shootings are carried out by isolated, lonely people who feel they haven't gotten enough recognition. Seeing one such shooter become a household name overnight, a symbol to be feared, I can't help but wonder how many other antisocial, angry kids are sitting in their rooms right this minute and thinking to themselves, 'that'd show 'em.'
A forensic psychiatrist warned BBC of the dangers of over-covering mass murders after a school shooting in Germany.
"Every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week," Dr. Park Dietz said. "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."
So far every major news outlet has been doing exactly what Dr. Dietz said not to do.
Sure, it's important to talk about gun control and access to mental health care. And there's no time that those points can be made as strongly as right after a major traumatic event like the Sandy Hook shooting. But the coverage needs to be taken down about 20 notches, from alarmist voyeurism to calm discussion of the future. And most importantly, the fascination with the shooter needs to stop. Picking apart the life of one disturbed kid will not bring back the dead ones.
Gun and health care conversations aside, if we're ever going to see a decrease in these mass shootings, we have to stop treating them like sporting events; crowding around our televisions and computers, desperate for every little detail.
It's counterintuitive for any reporter to walk away from a story that everyone in the country wants more of, but there's an issue here more important than viewership. We, the media, are not helping the country cope with a tragedy, we're playing right into the cycle that will cause more tragedy. We're giving the shooter the recognition he wanted, and sending the message to all the other potential Adam Lanzas out there that going out in a blaze of gunfire will guarantee them a lasting legacy.