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School Shootings: It's Time the Media Admit They Are a Big Part of the Problem

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Beyond each of these tragedies, lies the depressing set piece; the ensuing media coverage that has come to feel rote and futile.

There are the interviews with the survivors; the tales of heroism amidst the carnage; the ritualistic discussion, that typically goes nowhere, of gun control laws; the sound bites describing the perpetrator as quiet, a "bit of a loner".

And, of course, there's the race to get the first picture of the murderer.

The time has long since come for the media to recognize a simple fact: that picture is a big part of this problem.

As the police might say, it provides probable cause.

We live in an age of celebrity and instant communication. Too many people want to be famous and too many of them will settle for infamy, to get them there.

The media give them that, every time the murderers' pictures are published; every time their stories are told.

The murderers go out in what they see as a blaze of media glory.

Would they commit these atrocities if they knew that what awaited them, instead of fame, was anonymity?

In 1999, when the Columbine shootings left 12 victims dead and another 21 injured, Time magazine, which is usually a pretty smart publication, printed what struck me as the dumbest cover I had ever seen on a magazine.

The cover had small pictures of each of the dead. But they were dwarfed by much larger pictures of the two murderers, smiling, from their yearbook.

We know none of the victims' names. But those of the killers have been seared into our memories.

The accompanying headline read: The Monsters Next Door. Why Did They Do It?

The answer, to me, was self-evident.

I cannot prove that the murderers at Columbine or Sandy Hook Elementary were attention seekers, driven by a wish for posthumous celebrity.

Despite the surface similarities, the circumstances leading to the slaughter of innocents in school shootings are invariably different. And the perpetrators all turn the gun on themselves. They're never around to answer questions.

But I do know that each of murderers is rewarded by what Andy Warhol called fifteen minutes of fame.

Why do the media have to give them that?

When Columbine happened I was working for ABC News. I sent an email to the president of the network, David Westin. In it, I asked him to consider that the media were a contributing factor in the social equation that led to school shootings.

I suggested that ABC could set a new standard for how these kinds of stories are covered. I told him that the next time a Columbine happened, ABC should not identify the killers. If intended celebrity was indeed behind their terrible crimes, the media should deny the murderers that.

I stipulated to Westin that journalists should, in every other way, report the story thoroughly. We should investigate who the perpetrators were; what kind of families they came from; how they were treated at school by classmates and teachers. And, of course, where they got the guns.

But, I said, we could do all that and simply not reveal their names. Not show their pictures. Not make them famous. Just call them Murderer 1 and Murderer 2. Deny them any kind of personal exposure. Sentence them to a death in absolute obscurity.

The response I got from my boss had a patronizing air to it. He told me that, in the age of the internet, the information would be out there anyway and that not putting it on television would not change that.

Of course the information is out there. But when it's on the net, people have to look for it. Mass media coverage is the opposite of that.

Mass media coverage looks for us. It wants to attract attention. No one reading this piece had to go searching for information on the massacre in Connecticut. It found you, the same way gossip about the Kardashians does.

I happen to believe the US does need much stricter gun control laws. But given the resistance of the unholy alliance that is the NRA, the GOP and Fox News, that is unlikely to happen. And it's absolutely certain not to happen quickly enough.

If I were President Obama, this is what I would do. I would summon the heads of major US media organizations to a meeting in Washington. I would urge them to stop oxygenating these murderers, to stop identifying them. Stop putting their pictures on magazine covers and on news networks. Give them the John Doe treatment they so richly deserve.

When the media execs come back with their slippery slope arguments about freedom of the press, I would call them on that. I would use the bully pulpit to do right by America. I would tell them that they have social responsibilities and that they should have come up with this approach themselves.

Then I would address the country from the Oval Office and send a message to anybody who thinks that shooting a bunch of school kids is going to make them famous. Let them know that all they'll end up with is their self-inflicted bullet to the head, and an express ticket to hell.

Maybe I'm wrong on this. Maybe celebrity has nothing do with what drives these killers. But I don't think so.

And given the futility of the set piece coverage of these tragedies, the sheer repetitiveness of it, where no one has any answers, only questions and cries for help, where is the harm in trying?

Because Americans have always had guns. Something else has changed in the social equation.
I believe it has to do with the need to be famous, the willingness of some sick people to go to the most horrific lengths to achieve that, and the role the media play.

By the way, ABC News scooped the world by getting the first picture of the killer in Connecticut.
He's no longer the network's president. But I'm sure David Westin would have been proud.