What Does The Media Mean When It Calls A Shooter A Lone Wolf?

Some mass shooters are called lone wolves, while others are labeled terrorists.

Editor's note: A Plus does not publish the names of mass shooters in an effort to combat mass shooting contagion. Throughout this piece, we will refer to the perpetrator as the Las Vegas gunman.

On October 1, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of people attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. The shooting killed 59 people and injured upwards of 500 others. In the media coverage that followed, like many solo, white gunmen before him, the Las Vegas gunman was been labeled a "lone wolf," as opposed to a terrorist, or even more apparently, a mass murderer.

Writer and civil rights activist Shaun King declared in a tweet from earlier this week that many in the media's choice in language stems from one crucial identifying characteristic — race.

In a longer article, King, who is a columnist for The Intercept, explained his stance in more detail. "[The Las Vegas gunman,] like the majority of mass shooters in this country, was a white American. And that simple fact changes absolutely everything about the way this horrible moment gets discussed in the media and the national discourse: Whiteness, somehow, protects men from being labeled terrorists," he argued.

Noting that Muslims or African-Americans who commit horrible acts aren't given the same privilege or protections in the media, King added, that the gunman "was declared a 'lone wolf' before analysts even started their day, not because an exhaustive investigation produced such a conclusion, but because it is the only available conclusion for a white man in America who commits a mass shooting."

And even just a quick look at how the media has covered many of the mass shootings over the past several years seems to support King's argument. As King points out, another mass killer who shot and killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 — was called a "lone wolf," as was the man who murdered 9 people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

By contrast, when an army veteran killed 5 police officers in Dallas last year and injured 9 others, the media focused on his ties to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Pulse nightclub shooter was occasionally given the "lone wolf" label, but his reported allegiance to ISIS was more prevalent in the ensuing media coverage.

In an effort to offer an explanation for why the media treats some murderers different from others King stated, "What we are witnessing is the blatant fact that white privilege protects [the Las Vegas gunman,] an alleged mass murderer, not just from being called a terrorist, but from the anger, rage, hellfire, and fury that would surely rain down if he were almost anyone other than a white man. His skin protects him." 

While the "lone wolf" distinction may not seem all that important in the grand scheme of things, language can downplays the severity and devastation of the related event, and may succeed in romanticizing mass killers. Studies suggest sensationalized media coverage may lead to a copycat phenomenon, as the shooters are elevated to celebrity status. 

As filmmaker Max Stossel said last year, "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." 

Even though Stossel and others are working to change how media organizations both label and cover mass shooters, change will not come swiftly or easily. 

In concluding his argument King wrote, "It is an exemplar of white privilege: not just being given a headstart in society, but also the freedom from certain consequences of individual and group actions."

Cover image via Shutterstock / Pulsipher Photography.

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