On Friday night, the United States witnessed yet another mass shooting as a gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun. 50 people died, including the shooter, and another 53 were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in the nation's history.
These incidences spark fervent debates about mental illness and gun control, issues that are directly in the hands of lawmakers and powerful organizations like the NRA. But on the other end of the conversation about mass shootings is how "infectious" they can be. As A Plus has detailed before, sensationalized media coverage of mass shooters — their names, family background, life stories — creates a copycat phenomenon. The media's focus on a mass shooter elevates him or her to celebrity status, which is exactly what they account for during the planning and execution of their crimes.
Alongside organizations like Don't Name Them and Alerrt, filmmaker and storyteller Max Stossel is pushing for media organizations to stop revealing the names and life stories of mass shooters to curb the contagion of mass shootings.
"To those writing New York Times and People magazine profiles, wherever you are, making money on fear has gone far too far. You're not just boosting monthly impression numbers, you're selling tragedy for ad dollars, ignoring people who are dying every single day because their stories don't drive traffic in quite the same way," Stossel says in a video released a day following the Orlando shooting. "This is terrible journalism."
Stossel's video was created in anticipation of the next shooting, because the question is not "will this happen again?"; the question is "when will this happen again?"
"To those sitting in offices making these calls to share the videos and life stories of mass murderers, you all need to understand that you are an accessory to the next one," Stossel says in the video. "And there will be a next one."
Stossel told A Plus in an interview that he was inspired to launch this movement after a particularly striking moment of media coverage of the Oregon shooting last year.
"I watched John Hanlin, the sheriff in Oregon, say he wouldn't name the shooter, and then watched CNN quickly cut away from John, and not only directly ignore his wishes, but share the shooter's name, his writings and more," Stossel said. "Then I started looking into the research and found that those cuts may be costing people their lives."
He named several findings — including the PLOS One study A Plus covered above — that pointed to how sensationalizing these shootings and giving the shooters extensive airtime inspired other such attacks.
The solution, then, seems clear. "I'd never seen such a tangible opportunity for organizations to make a simple shift that could save lives," Stossel said.
A change in how the media covers mass shootings not only has the power to impact future events like these, it also has a huge effect on the victims and their families. Stossel is seeking to hold the media accountable, as well as asking for the public to demand more of the news they read:
We're seeking out information less and letting it come to us more, that means that either the infamous stories of mass murderers or the stories of innocent people who had their futures stolen will pop up in our feeds. The legacy of these events belong to those innocent people in their families. Can you imagine losing a loved one in an event like this and then seeing the picture of the person who inflicted that pain all over all your TV and digital screens?
While the responsibility for better journalism lies with media outlets, the public ultimately has a say in the kind of content they show. The media is often saturated with the negative, sensationalized details of mass shootings in part because they are the kind of stories that generate the most clicks and drive the greatest traffic.
"I hope readers will think twice before clicking or sharing an article about someone whose message or memory they don't want in the world, and I hope people working in media will join us in creating a policy to tell the stories of these incidents in a responsible manner," Stossel added.
Watch his video below:
Cover image via Michael Schall / A Plus.