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Sensationalization of Gunmen in Media Inspires More Harm

Illustration by Siena Laws

When a new shooting occurs, for example the one in Parkland last month, the conversation inevitably shifts to two main ideas, mental health and gun control. To summarize this discussion briefly it goes something like this: “We need to pass gun control,” “We need to grieve first,” “We need to pass gun control,”  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “We need to pass gun control,” “It’s a mental health issue not a gun issue.” It’s an ongoing cycle permeated through a negligence to have civil discourse and settle the issue permanently.

Generally by the time this conversation gets to mental health, any opposition to the all powerful NRA has all but dissipated. However with the Parkland shooting, it may be different, this time the conversation is being led by the students themselves and it appears the national dialogue is shifting. Is this the beginning of the end? Maybe, maybe not.

Regardless of this most recent shooting one common theme seems to connect these tragedies — the portrayal of the shootings by the media.

School shootings are not a modern occurrence, they have happened in this country well before the age of media, however the frequency and impact has shifted in the past two decades since the notorious Columbine massacre, as well as the collective reaction towards these atrocities.

If you examine this you will quickly find you cannot rely on the usual culprits of guns and mental health; semi automatic weapons and mental health concerns have both been around well before 1999. To understand why mass shootings have spiked in this century you must understand the Columbine effect.

In 1999 at Columbine Colorado two students at Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, using both improvised explosives and guns killed 12 students and 1 teacher. In the years after Columbine both Harris and Klebold have gained a cult following known as the “Columbiners,” amounting to 74 known copycat cases, 21 of which were successfully carried out according to a recent study conducted by Mother Jones.

The sensationalization of these events by the media has brought attention to these tragedies in all the wrong ways. By focusing more on the shooters and less on the victims they elevate the perpetrators to celebrity status — potentially encouraging the next would-be shooter.

This issue is epitomized by the front page of Time Magazine in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Two photos of Harris and Klebold dominate the page, with small black and white photos of their victims on the outer edge, pushing their memory in the background while all focus is maintained on the perpetrator.

In the wake of the 2012 Colorado theater shooting, a campaign was created to address this issue of media coverage. The movement, known as the “No Notoriety” campaign was created by Tom and Caren Teves, the parents of one of the victims of the shooting. 

The aim of this initiative is to deter copycats by limiting the shooters names and pictures as much as possible. This in turn prevents them from amassing more influence and potentially inspiring more harmful incidents.

The impact of the “No Notoriety” campaign might be working. The aftermath of the Parkland shooting demonstrates how a focus on the victims and the survivors has more impact in making progress. If we continue to glamorize the shooters, we only subtract from the issue. It’s time we pay more attention to the voices of those who have experienced tragedy in order to learn how we can prevent such mindless violence from occurring in the future.

Survivors of the Parkland shooting are using media attention to express their concerns and spark political action to make substantial change. This narrative change, from glorifying shooters to uplifting voices of survivors, is vital to bringing about actual change

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