Mormon Media Observer: Time for journalists to consider how they cover tragedy

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 5:23 p.m. MDT

In 2007, an 18-year-old walked into a public high school in Jokela, Finland, and started firing a gun.

The shooter killed six students, the principal and the school nurse before turning the gun on himself.

Not surprisingly, within minutes numerous journalists descended on the crime scene and interviewing many of the students who had been traumatized by the event.

Last year, a group of researchers from Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare published a study about the effect the interviews had on the traumatized students, among other things.

The researchers talked to the many students who were approached by a journalist after the event — two-thirds of whom who had accepted the invitation.

To be sure, the study had its limitations in scope and method, but one finding came away strongly: When a journalist interviews a teen traumatized by an event, the interview process can add to the distress. Here's what the Finnish scientists wrote in Journal of Traumatic Stress:

"Our results suggest that being approached by journalists and especially being interviewed had a significant effect on post-traumatic distress in traumatized adolescents."

Another incident occurred in 1989, when a lone gunman — Patrick Purdy — entered an elementary school playground in Stockton, Calif., and killed five children and wounded 29, before turning the gun on himself.

The horrific story received extensive news coverage.

Seven months later, Joseph Wesbecker, entered a plant in Kentucky and opened fire. According to a dispatch by UPI and researcher Clayton Cramer, police found among Wesbecker's belongings a copy of Time magazine describing Purdy's killing spree, with at least one headline underlined.

The implication: That media coverage had served as one inspiration for a second troubled man to become a killer.

In the wake of the horrific movie-theater shooting in Colorado, it is time for journalists to have a serious conversation about how they handle these events.

Now, I am not saying that there should be a coverage blackout in any sense, nor do I favor any kind of limitations on how journalists do their job from outside authorities.

Neither I am asserting that coverage of one event "causes" someone else to commit a crime. The science is too thin, too anecdotal, to suggest much about that. Certainly, each person is responsible for his own actions.

What I am saying is that our approaches to coverage can traumatize those already in pain — and that the coverage may be a factor, even if a small one, in some twisted decisions. Is it a stretch to think that some people may want to be famous so fiercely, they are willing to be infamous?

What can be done?

Journalists through their professional organizations — such as the Society of Professional Journalists — and through their professional journals can and do have long conversations about issues affecting the profession. And those discussions make a difference. (For example, I have seen improvements in the coverage of religion that seem a direct result of conversations in publications like the American Journalism Review.)

It's time for such a conversation to start in greater earnest on how to cover mass shootings.

Maybe I can make three suggestions, all subject to change as such conversations unfold.

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