Why Attention Must Not Be Paid: The Consequences of Obsessive Media Coverage of Criminal Suspects

Right now we are dangerously close to repeating earlier mistakes in granting so much airtime to notorious suspects.
08/08/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012
FILE - In this Monday, July 23, 2012 file photo, James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people in Friday's shooting rampage in a
FILE - In this Monday, July 23, 2012 file photo, James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people in Friday's shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, appears in Arapahoe County District Court with defense attorney Tamara Brady in Centennial, Colo. Colorado prosecutors are filing formal charges Monday July 30, 2012, against Holmes, the former neuroscience student accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others at an Aurora movie theater. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool, File)

Since the shootings in Aurora, Colo., news coverage has hovered around James E. Holmes, who allegedly killed 12 individuals and injured 58 others when he opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora. The extent of this media coverage, the sheer prominence of Holmes' image, has garnered significant criticism. When meeting with victims' families and survivors at a Denver hospital on Sunday, July 22, President Obama remarked that the attention paid to Holmes would diminish "after he has felt the full force of our justice system," when the spotlight would again focus upon "the good people who were impacted by this tragedy." We must hope that this prediction is wrong, and that Holmes disappears from the national spotlight much sooner.

Right now we are dangerously close to repeating earlier mistakes in granting so much airtime to notorious suspects. Timothy McVeigh was another young, solemn-looking individual accused of an atrocious crime. Over the six years from McVeigh's perp walk on April 21, 1995 to his execution on June 11, 2001, McVeigh's stony visage became an iconic image. Today when we recall McVeigh, we likely recall a glowering young man whose expression prompted us to believe that he was out to defy the world or die trying. McVeigh's example should have taught us much how such high-profile suspects should be handled -- in a manner that strikes the balance between educating the public and unwittingly giving these suspects the publicity that they crave.

In my recent book, Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure, I chronicle the devastating effect that McVeigh's visibility had upon family members and survivors. The vast majority noted that McVeigh's ubiquitous presence created the sense that they were trapped in an involuntary relationship with him, so that he became a toxic presence in their lives. This involuntary relationship was one of the strongest reasons why family members and survivors wanted McVeigh to be executed, and why so many wanted to witness his death. As one family member noted,

"[McVeigh] was defiant all the way up to the point where it actually happened... And everything that he did was doing nothing but hurting the family members here in Oklahoma... Nichols is a little different because since he's been tried and convicted, you don't hear about him... I can live with him being in prison for the rest of his life, for the simple reason that he is not defiant and he's not going out and getting on the news and so forth and trying to hurt the family members."

Thus, most believed that the only way to get peace or relief from McVeigh's incessant presence was to execute him, and they spoke of literally silencing him through lethal injection. This sensation of an involuntary relationship was so profound that even individuals who opposed capital punishment felt relief when media coverage diminished following the execution. McVeigh's example illustrates the profoundly toxic effect that ceaseless coverage of a suspect may have upon the very population that we ostensibly wish to protect.

Moreover, such pervasive media coverage can also create difficulties in determining whether suspects such as Holmes are guilty, in effectively holding them accountable, and in thwarting future attacks. Defense attorneys can claim that media audiences saturated with news coverage about a suspect's alleged guilt will find it difficult or impossible to fairly evaluate criminal evidence at trial, necessitating that proceedings be moved to a different location, far away from the community in which the crime was committed. Incessantly broadcasting a suspect's image also prompts us to make judgments about his personality, characteristics, and motivations before factual information is readily available. These judgments color our later impressions of these individuals, and are remarkably enduring even if they are later proven to be erroneous. Finally, a public that is continually exposed to images of a suspect will quickly grow weary of the matter. Humans have finite attention spans, and this precious resource is best reserved for victims' families and survivors and for information relevant to how a crime was committed and how future incidents could be prevented. This is not to say that pictures of suspects such as Holmes have no place in the news, only that such images should not be made the only centerpiece of coverage about their alleged criminal activities.

Finally, inconsistent coverage of criminal suspects reveals much about our national priorities and cultural biases. On Sunday, August 5, Wade Michael Page allegedly opened fire inside a Sikh temple in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisc., killing six. Yet, Page received a fraction of the media coverage that Holmes has. There are some key factors that could explain the differences in media attention; for instance, Page was shot by police at the scene and will not be the subject of future legal proceedings like Holmes. But I suspect that cultural biases also divert media attention away from a shooting in a suburban Sikh temple and towards a shooting in a suburban movie theater. Perhaps we feel that the murders in Aurora affect people that are "more like us" and "could happen anywhere," whereas Page targeted a group perceived as "other," one that most know little about (as Page obviously did, when he potentially confused them with Muslims). The result is that, despite the obvious similarities between their crimes, Holmes's image appeared in the media far more often than pictures of Page. Differences in media coverage reinforce and exacerbate cultural stereotypes, as certain crimes and certain victims come to be seen as more newsworthy than others, and their perpetrators as more reprehensible. But don't we expect our places of worship to be safe, just as we anticipate that we can fully relax and enjoy ourselves in our places of recreation? And aren't the stories of survivorship, heroism, and mourning from both of these tragedies equally harrowing and heartrending?

We must ask ourselves, therefore, what incessant coverage of a suspect such as Holmes says about us. At best, it suggests a confusion of priorities. At worse, it could indicate a voyeuristic impulse, base curiosity, or a temptation to revel in violence for its own sake. But we cannot continue to sanctify such obsessive coverage of criminal suspects in the name of national sorrow.