Letter from the editor: Coverage of mass shootings evolves as newsrooms examine practices
Last weekend’s mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket raised several questions for reporters who covered it, in New York and abroad.
Early telegraph dispatches mentioned that the alleged shooter was white and that the neighborhood of the store was predominantly black. The Oregonian/OregonLive reporting guidelines say to only mention race when relevant.
At this early stage, at least in published reports, the suspect’s apparent racist motives were not yet known, so we removed mention of race from the Associated Press article we published on OregonLive. Moments later, the AP confirmed that investigators believed the suspect was motivated by racial hatred and had targeted a black community. The fact that the suspect was white and 10 victims were black was now relevant to understanding the events and should be included.
Later that Saturday afternoon, reports said a 180-page “white supremacist manifesto” from the alleged shooter had surfaced. National Public Radio has decided not to qualify these documents as “manifestos”, which gives a patina of importance to the often incoherent ramblings. The AP has also moved away from the word “manifest”.
A recent book, “A Field Guide to White Supremacy,” includes a section where editors Kathleen Belew and Ramon A. Gutierrez suggest revisions to the Associated Press Stylebook, advice followed by many newsrooms. The authors write: “We urge journalists and editors not to reprint or hyperlink these materials, but rather to seek expert commentary to read, decode and understand them.
Likewise, journalists and editors have become reluctant to focus on mass shooters, especially at the expense of victims. Some newspapers stopped publishing information about the mass shootings on the front page. Other newsrooms restrict the use of shooters’ names to distract them.
After the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, the Douglas County Sheriff called on the media not to use the name of the man who killed nine people and then himself.
“Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter,” Sheriff John Hanlin said at a press conference at the time. “I will not give him credit for this horrible act of cowardice.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive tries to limit the use of a mass murderer’s name, but I believe readers are well served by stories that delve into the factors that may have motivated the crimes. Have there been any previous threats or disturbing behavior? This is important to know, for example, in the discussion of “red flag” laws, which allow courts to seize firearms in certain cases.
Was the attacker the victim of Internet indoctrination? Has anyone purchased a gun illegally or stockpiled ammunition? These facts also have implications for public policy.
As more information became available, AP also moved from describing the attack as “racially motivated” to calling it, emphatically, “racist.” Such clear language serves the readers.
Belew, an expert on extremist violence, takes issue with the myth of the “lone wolf” abuser, saying hate-motivated attacks are often part of a larger movement. “Perpetrator-centric history reveals that many allegedly inexplicable acts of violence in the present are driven by a coherent and deliberate ideology,” Belew writes, citing the mass shootings at two New Zealand mosques.
Indeed, the alleged Buffalo shooter appears to have been motivated by the racist ideology known as the “Great Replacement Theory”. The Associated Press describes the conspiracy theory, “leaking from the margins of the internet,” as “a conspiracy to diminish white influence. …both by immigration of non-white people into largely white-dominated societies, as well as sheer demographics, with whites having lower birth rates than other populations.
The AP appeared to scramble last weekend after readers on social media slammed the news service for calling the white shooter a “teenage boy.” While accurate (he’s 18), the description seemed to some readers at odds with descriptions of 18-year-old blacks, like Michael Brown, as “men.” (Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.)
In other words, did the choice of “the teenager” somehow send the message that the attacker was a misguided youth rather than a ruthless killer? The AP quickly deleted the reference and posted a tweet referring to the accused as a “male”, adding, “This replaces an earlier tweet which did not clearly indicate the suspect was an adult.”
I can see an editor working under time pressure choosing the word “teenager” as something out of the ordinary and worth highlighting. But editors who take a closer look can see a tendency in the media to portray suspects in distinct ways – jumping to mental illness as a problem for a white abuser, for example, while highlighting the history of arrest of a black attacker.
In a Washington Post opinion piece published last week, two academics reported on their research, which found that “only about 10% of mass shootings were directly motivated by psychotic hallucinations and delusions”. In other words, mental illness is rarely to blame.
James Densley, professor of criminal justice at Metro State University, and Jillian Peterson, associate professor of criminology at Hamline University, wrote that the motivations may be opaque, but what is clear is that the attackers want to “cause as much death and destruction as possible so that a world that would have otherwise ignored them would be forced to notice them and feel their anguish.
If mass shooters have a publicity purpose, we the media have the responsibility – and the tools – to thwart them. As journalists, we must do everything in our power to minimize violence.