The mass shooting in Connecticut changed the game, and change needs to happen. As broadcast journalists we can no longer sit back wondering why these tragedies happen; we must examine what role we have in the story itself. One action we could take immediately is to stop repeatedly airing photos and video of the accused gunman.
Seung-Hui Cho, James Holmes, Jared Loughner and now Adam Lanza. The images of these killers are burnt into our minds inciting fear and sadness. Repeatedly broadcasting photos of these men helps create martyrs of terror. The goal should be to remember the tragedy but forget the killer.
The cycling of the same video and photos is not as intentional as many viewers would like to think. The Sorkinian world of broadcast journalism doesn't exist. Producers are routinely overworked and often have to edit video at their desk while writing scripts. With newsroom budgets stretched thin producers aren't agonizing over every frame of video; most of the time they're just struggling to get the show on air.
As journalists we must find a way to report the story without glorifying the gunman. CNN, FOX News, NBC News, HLN, ABC, and CBS have all aired pictures of Lanza. It's clear that these events are newsworthy and it's expected that the press will identify who the killer is, but there should be some reasonable limits. All networks could take quick action to end this problem by following two simple rules.
- Air video/pictures of the gunman for up to 48 hours after the material is first released.
- After that first 48 hours, networks would use alternate material when discussing the story -- such as video from the scene or photos of the weapons used.
A move like this isn't unprecedented. In Chicago, journalists refrain from mentioning specific gangs in order to not incite more gang violence. ABC News refrains from airing video from 9/11 and uses photos instead. If people really want to see pictures of these gunmen, they will still be able to easily find them on the Internet.
The frantic pace of broadcast journalism is fueled by an eternal need to feed the beast. A beast that never sleeps and is never satisfied. We are often working so hard to get something on air that we forget the impact the images might have on the viewer.
Though we may never truly understand why these men do these terrible acts, we must do something. There are several known and unknown factors for why a person would commit a mass shooting and the media is only a small piece of a very large puzzle. Hopefully one day broadcasters won't have to report on these stories, until then The 48 Hour Rule might be a good start.