On Anderson Cooper's show, a father of a victim of the Aurora shooting asks about media's role
Mike Hoyt: Is Tom Teves right to say news organizations should ignore the mass killers
He says it's natural to ask why the horrific incident happened and what motivated the gunman
Hoyt: Media should make the necessary inquiries but never glorify the killer
Editor’s Note: Mike Hoyt is executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
We learned a few things on Monday night, those of us watching Anderson Cooper on “AC360,” about Alex Teves, one of the people who died in the gunfire at theater 9 in the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado. We learned that in high school, “for no reason whatever,” as his father put it, Alex always wore white T-shirts and blue jeans, and that one day some 400 to 500 kids from the school wore the same outfit, declaring an unofficial “Alex Teves Day.”
We got to meet Alex’s best friend, Ryan Cooper, who spoke about how people were “drawn to him.” And his girlfriend, Amanda Lindgren, who told us, among other things, about the last act of Alex’s life, which in some ways is all you need to know: He dove across her body to protect her from the bullets.
Perhaps most painfully, we met Tom Teves, the father of Alex, a likeable, visibly hurt man. He said, when Cooper asked how he was holding up: “It’s the worst day of my life every day. Alex was my firstborn son. I love him with all my heart.”
Teves had something to say to the news media, too, something impossible to ignore: “And if we don’t stop talking about the gunman – so somebody took a gun and went in and shot a 6-year-old girl? Why are we talking about that person?”
He went on: “I would like to see CNN come out with a policy that said, ‘Moving forward, we’re not going to talk about the gunman. What we’re going to say is: A coward walked into a movie theater and started shooting people. He’s apprehended. The coward’s in jail. He will never see the light of day again. Let’s move on’… CNN, Fox News, the major networks. Why don’t you guys all come out with a policy that says, we’re not going to show this [killer] again? That would be my – that would be my challenge to you and to every network.”
As compelling and tempting as his plea is, I would argue that Teves is only half right.
The mass killings certainly dominated the news, quickly becoming one of the biggest stories of 2012.
Nearly three quarters of the nation has been following it “very” or “fairly” closely, according to Pew Research Center. Still, if mass shootings weren’t big news, you would worry. James Holmes’ face, meanwhile, made it to a number of front pages in the wake of the massacre, as shown in Newseum’s Today’s Front Page feature, but not as often or as large as you might think. And you did want to know what he looked like, didn’t you? Even Tom Teves went to court to see his face.
Like Teves, many people suspect that some sort of media glory is part of the payoff for these mass killers. And that seems plausible. But the truth of the matter is we don’t have a clue. Nor do we have an idea if some sort of media blackout about them would have any effect in preventing this type of incident from occurring again.
As an analogy, one he freely admitted is on a wholly different level, Teves used the example of people running on fields during professional ball games.
The media stopped showing such incidents, he pointed out, and now that the TV cameras no longer show these runners, he asked, “When was the last time you saw somebody jump on the field?”
The problem, unfortunately, is that people still jump on ball fields. I just search for “people running on baseball fields” on Google and up popped recent incidents in 10 cities, all recorded on cell phones, as well as two websites that collects such videos.
What really causes mass murderers to commit their crimes? Mental illness? Environmental factors? Something worse?
News media speculation about the motive isn’t helpful to anyone. Yet people around the country are concerned; some are even traumatized by this event. It is natural to wonder why and how the horrific shooting happened. And to the extent that it can address such big questions, news organizations should make the necessary inquiries – dig into the suspect’s past, find indicators of questionable behavior, look for signs of terrifying intent. This is the media’s responsibility.
News outlets should never glorify killers in any way. In the chance that being on television and across the front pages could be a draw to killers, the news media must err on the side of caution in its coverage. The prime focus should be properly on the victims. And, I would add, on the victims’ friends and families, who tell us so movingly that they will remember. As Teves said, “You know, Alex would have expected us to live. We’re going to live.” To report that kind of love and guts is essential.
Still, when something like this happens, we are, as a society, like a tribe discussing the events around the campfire. Reporters are something like the tribal scouts. There are wolves, and we have questions: How many wolves? How do they act? Which way should we go?
Here, too, we have questions: Who is this killer? What concrete facts give clues to how he got that way? Is there any law or cultural change that might deter the next one? Were signals missed? All of this matters. Tell us about the wolves.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Hoyt.