Editor's Note: As the nation deals with its 355th* mass shooting of 2015, this three-part series explores potential responses and solutions to this all-too-common public safety crisis, including the role of the media, mental illness and gun accessibility.
Few people recognize the name of 24-year-old Alex Teves, but it’s likely they know the name of the man who killed him: James Holmes.
Teves wasn't the only person Holmes killed. On July 20, 2012, Holmes killed 12 people in Aurora, Colorado, and in the process became something of a household name.
That fact has frustrated and saddened Teves’ parents, Caren and Tom, since they got the call that Alex had been shot.
“We turned on the TV to the major networks hoping for a number for family members to call or some protocol to take,” Caren Teves said. “That didn’t happen. All we saw was the shooter, the shooter, the shooter.”
This led the Teves family to found No Notoriety, a campaign that urges news outlets to limit how much they use a gunman’s name and photograph. The hope, Tom Teves said, is to curb shootings by denying many perpetrators what they want: fame.
“Our lives today are driven by data and facts,” Tom Teves said. “Well, the facts and data clearly show that media coverage is a motivating factor.”
The Teves' loss is part of a growing American trend of public gun violence they say the media can help prevent. In a new report released this month, gun safety advocate group Everytown found that there were 133 "mass shootings" in the U.S. between January 2009 and July 2015. Mass shootings are defined by the FBI as shootings where four or more people die.
Using a broader definition of "mass shootings" where four or more people are killed or injured, The Washington Post reported that as of Dec. 3, there had been 355 shootings in the U.S. in 2015 alone, including the Nov. 27 shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, and the Dec. 2 shooting at the Inland Regional Center, a facility for people with disabilities in San Bernardino, California.
“There’s no doubt about it. One of the reasons they kill is to gain notoriety,” City University of New York sociologist Ralph Larkin said. “You also get instances like Newtown (Connecticut) or the Oregon shooter who want to up the amount of people they kill to ensure they get media coverage.”
As evidence mounts that some rampage shooters kill for fame, American newsrooms will have to redefine the difference between informing the masses and partial complicity in a growing public safety crisis.
After the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon this October, the debate came to a head when Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to name the shooter, saying, “I will not give him the credit he probably sought.”
This sparked a range of responses from high-profile journalists and media outlets. People magazine pledged to use caution when considering publishing names or photographs of shooters.
Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNN’s Don Lemon sparred on Twitter over whether to name a gunman at all, while The Washington Post argued that journalists shouldn't back down from covering shootings because they may inspire similar acts.
The Teveses don’t blame the media solely for the death of their son or the shootings that have followed, nor do they advocate not naming a perpetrator at all. But as policymakers argue over how to address other factors, like access to guns and how best to treat mental illness, the Teveses say media coverage is the only factor that can be changed immediately. Naming the shooter only once in a news story on first reference sends a message to future shooters that they won't be glorified in the press, Caren Teves said.
“Name him once and then replace it with ‘the shooter’ — it doesn’t change the facts of the story and it’s something that can be implemented now, today,” she said. “This isn’t something that takes an act of Congress, but an act of conscience.”
New medium, new problems
The question of whether media coverage of violent crime begets more crime is far from new. It’s an issue Americans have been debating since the country’s infancy, says Andie Tucher, a history of communications professor at the Columbia Journalism School.
“Every new medium that’s come along has felt faster and more intrusive,” Tucher said. “The Internet is certainly ubiquitous and we are saturated with information, but every time a new medium comes along, we go through the same thing."
But the sheer volume and pervasive nature of the Internet brings new questions to the table, like how to keep false information in check when news outlets must compete with social media.
“With print, the quickest you could turn a story around was 24 hours. These days if you wait 24 seconds, it seems to me like you’re behind the eight ball,” said Daniel King, chief trial deputy for the Colorado state public defender’s office in the Aurora case. “So you have these narratives that get put out there that are just untrue.”
In the Aurora case because the shooting took place during a screening of “The Dark Knight,” the media questioned whether the shooter may have been obsessed with the movie’s villain, the Joker, as motivation for killing, King says. When the trial began years later, King said the question of how his client may have identified with a fictional villain was still paramount in the minds of many potential jurors.
“These narratives gain a reality of their own, even when they’re not true, and you can’t get away from it,” King said. “It can create a one-sided process where there’s an expectation of a guilty verdict rather than a re-examination of the evidence.”
Social media also puts news outlets in a difficult position because users on sites like Twitter and Facebook can break news without the same standards of verification, says Tamyra Pierce, a mass communication professor at California State University, Fresno.
“In this world of social media, where everything’s at your fingertips, if journalists don’t get it to us, we’ll find it somewhere else,” Pierce said. “There’s this fear in the community of journalism that the man on the street will get the story before they do."
Social media can also glorify shooters, a problem lawyers on both sides of the Aurora case said the media exacerbated when they covered the defendant’s “following.”
“The defendant in our case had some 6,000 supporters who had found each other through social media. That was frightening to me as a prosecutor,” Arapahoe County Assistant District Attorney Lisa Teesch-Maguire said. “The news media in turn highlighted (in coverage of the trial) that there were these groups of individuals and it encouraged them. The coverage was constantly there and it fueled this desire.”
King said that journalists’ competition with social media is a major engine behind false information, but he admits he doesn’t think that refraining from using names or images is a practical solution.
“If you start picking and choosing what to cover, then you don’t get a balanced approach,” King said.
Holding back information doesn't help anyone, says Bruce Shapiro, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma executive director.
“Personally, I find that withholding the name or whatever would be short-changing the public and short-changing the desire of families to see this all prevented,” Shapiro said. “They (shooters) can only be held responsible through information.”
New outlets' changing the way they cover events of death or violence has helped to save lives in the past.
Following a spate of suicides on a train line in Vienna in the late 1980s, the news media there stopped covering the suicides as a matter of public safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the coverage up to that point “extensive and dramatic” in an analysis following the change. As a result, the suicide rate in Vienna plummeted 80 percent in just six months, according to Suicide.org, prompting other media outlets like ABC News to adopt similar stances on suicide coverage.
Rampage shootings show similar signs of contagion, according to a 2014 study by Arizona State University. Researchers called the phenomenon “contagious ideation” and they found that mass killings (including shootings) in the U.S. dating as far back as 1998 exhibited contagion similar to suicide — once a shooting occurred, the probability of a similar shooting taking place rose slightly for an average of 13 days. The study listed media coverage of shootings as one of several likely contributors.
As part of her 2001 dissertation, Pierce studied media coverage of Columbine and its role in copycat crimes. Pierce found that hearing something as simple as words like "shoot," "massacre" or "murder," along with repeated exposure to the details of violent crime, could affect the behavior of some people.
With the help of a local news station, Pierce showed simulated newscasts to 250 people between 18 and 25 to see how different words can trigger different responses. The newscast gradually began using more and more aggressive words as it went on, like “kill,” “shoot,” and “massacre” to describe certain news events.
Participants whose personality profiles included depression or anxiety were more likely to report that after the newscast they had significantly more aggressive thoughts, that they felt an affinity with the shooter and that they accepted the shooter’s motives.
The results fueled Pierce’s theory that news coverage of the 1998 Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shooting and Columbine High School shooting the following year contributed to the 3,000 or so foiled shootings she counted following Columbine.
“Just hearing the word ‘shoot,’ our brain primes us instantly to recall certain visuals we may have seen of violence," Pierce said. "Journalists seek to inform the public but as a consequence, when you do this too much, it gives a susceptible person on the borderline a justification.”
One 2011 study from Indiana University observed 22 men ages 18-29 who were not regular video game players and had them play violent video games for a total of 10 hours in a weeklong period. After one week, MRI scans showed that activity had slowed in the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that keeps emotions in check — and activity was heightened in the limbic system, where emotions are formed.
The study doesn’t prove that exposure to violence through media is creating more shooters. But Pierce theorizes that once repeated exposure to violence like rampage shootings is normalized in the brain, the idea of committing an act of violence may seem reasonable to people who are depressed, mentally ill or socially alienated.
“When we talk about glorifying a perpetrator, we’re doing just that — we’re telling those who may be likely to do something similar that they’ll get attention,” Pierce said. “If we talk about the perpetrator in a way so that others can identify with the perpetrator — ‘This person was bullied, mistreated, was tired of this’ — then it justifies the act in a way to certain people who may elevate (shooters) even higher. Even if what’s being reported is true.”
Shapiro contended that journalists can't second-guess coverage based on how information might impact a small portion of their audience. Everyone, he argued, is impacted in some way by tragedies like rampage shootings, which is why news outlets work to unravel a possible pattern that policymakers may weave into a solution.
“You have to accept that news may act on the minds of troubled people. That’s part of what happens,” Shapiro said. “There are arguments for not using the names more than they need to, yet I think we do need to know who they are so we can see what is actually going on.”
But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an October article for The New Yorker, excessive exposure to information about shooters and their crimes may not only be triggering troubled people to act out, but possibly priming young minds to respond to life’s challenges with violence as well. In a world where violence is normalized in young minds and is examined exhaustively under the media’s microscope, potential shooters don’t need to be mentally ill to think of a public shooting as a quick, acceptable path to fame.
“The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse,” Gladwell wrote. “It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
A new story
Three years after Aurora, Teesch-Maguire advocates that the media try a new approach that focuses more on the victims and survivors.
“Tell the story of the woman who had her organs spilling outside of her body and lost a leg that night. She kick-boxes every day. That’s more interesting than anything I know about our defendant,” Teesch-Maguire said. “For me, those kinds of stories are so much more interesting and can garner just as much attention for the media.”
It’s tragic that death and violence lend a news value to the lives of the slain, but it’s true that they make no less compelling a story in the wake of a tragedy, as Alex Teves is evidence of.
Caren Teves recalls her son as a knee-high child “holding the door for strangers at the mall until I was like, ‘Come on, Alex, we have to go.’”
After earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology, Alex Teves was eager to do more, applying to a physical therapy program before his death, wanting to help people in as many ways as he could.
Tom Teves said that during a college road trip, one of Alex’s friends fell asleep at the wheel, causing the car to flip and some passengers to be ejected. Although he was badly injured, Alex pulled his friends from the car and made sure they were airlifted to medical help before he was. Later, while in intensive care, he was still thinking of a friend whose parents hadn’t arrived yet.
“He said, ‘Go sit with him, Dad,’” Tom Teves said. “‘He’s got nobody.’”
The Teveses wish readers and audiences had heard things like this more often than the details of the assailant’s life, not just for their son, but for the dozens who have died and will die under similar circumstances.
“What we want is pretty simple,” Tom Teves said. “We want people to live and we don’t want them to have to live like we do.”
Shapiro says that reporters focus on the gunman not just for news value, but also because of a fascination with evil that can get out of hand in the rush to be the first to get new information.
“There, historically, journalism can be faulted,” Shapiro said. “We’ve focused on offenders and murderers too often at the expense of keeping focus on whose loss this really is.”
Even people who have been affected by this issue, like the Teves family, recognize that media coverage is not “the” cause of mass shootings. Rather, it’s an ingredient in a poisonous cocktail that, when mixed with other factors like mental illness, emotional disenfranchisement and accessibility to guns, has created one of the biggest threats to public safety in U.S. history.
“(The media's possible role in rampage shootings) is distraction from the central issue, which, for me, is how guns keep getting into the hands of these young men,” Shapiro said.
As the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting looms, Caren Teves hopes American journalism will learn from the history it strives to document.
“Take a breath and consider what our world would be like right now if the media had taken a no-notoriety approach at the time of Columbine,” Teves said. “I think my son would still be with us. I think we would have at least reduced, if not eliminated, what we’re talking about right now.”
*This number comes from shootingtracker.com, which defines a "mass shooting" as an incident in which four or more people are injured or killed. Other definitions yield other numbers. The FBI tracks "mass killings," which it defines as an incident in which three or more people are killed, and says there have been 67 such incidents this year. The Congressional Research Service defines a "mass shooting" as an incident that involves four or more deaths, not including the shooter. According to this definition, there have been 317 mass shootings between 1999 and 2003, 66 of which CRS defines as “mass public shootings” because they took place in a public setting.
Email: [email protected]