In some situations, the way the media reports these incidents, causes them to be accessories in the crime. The news has a responsibility to the United States citizens to report important events. However, they also have a responsibility to do so carefully after tragic events like school shootings. After the deadly attack on February 14th, 2018 in Parkland Florida, the American people were bombarded with rumors, opinions, and deceit from numerous news outlets attempting to affect the public’s opinion on the tragedy.
According to an NBC News report on February 15th, a gunman opened fire with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle with multiple magazines at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This act killed seventeen students and staff members and injured seventeen others on February 14th, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, nineteen, entered the high school on a Wednesday afternoon, concealed as a high school student in a crowd. Cruz then went door to door shooting those who entered his path. When it was over, there were seventeen students and adults who lost their life and an additional seventeen wounded, some with life threatening injuries (Chuck, Johnson, & Siemaszko 2018).
Cruz walked into the school at 2:21 pm and opened fire. Within one minute, more than one hundred and fifty calls were made to 911. The shooting continued for six minutes, until 2:27 pm. Cruz hid among the other students fleeing the building in an attempt to escape. Within minutes police and the news were on the scene. Cruz then was later caught after entering a Walmart and McDonalds in a residential area, two miles from the school. The event did not end there, it was just the beginning of months of news coverage.
The public’s perception and response to school shootings has changed in the past twenty years. There are several factors that influence this change, one being the amount of media tension garnered by mass casualty events. In the race to win the ratings war, news outlets attempt to cover every possible component of the story as fast as possible. This happens at every level; local, national and international news. The emergence of twenty-four-hour news stations such as, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN and HLN and the rising popularity of digital news allows for fast and constant story creation. The way news media portrays these important events is relevant. Media is the main source of information for the general public these days. How this information is presented to the people can change their beliefs to fit those of the reporting news stations and paper.
The news plays an enormous role in the publics construction of reality. They not only break news, but shape and define the pressing issues and events that plague society. According to William A. Gamson, writer of Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality explained, “the ways in which news media collect, sort and contextualize crime reports help to shape public consciousness regarding which conditions need to be seen as urgent problems, what kinds of problems they represent, and, by implication, how they should be resolved” (Gamson 1992). What Gamson explains is commonly known as agenda setting. This allows news media to emphasize particular aspects of a story that support or bring attention to popular claims and opinions from their primary group of supporters. News stations often try to get inside knowledge about the shootings from experts in the field, victims and also witnesses. These people are generally reliable resources and often offer solutions and bring awareness to the situation. When news media personal does not have direct access to experts, victims and witnesses they bring in people called secondary claim makers. Secondary claim makers are not directly connected to the shooting or rather, they simply interpret and spread the facts. This is where stories get twisted, rumors spread and media bias becomes relevant.
There are numerous instances of agenda setting after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The most common example of agenda setting is the gun debate that happened immediately after the Parkland massacre. An article from the New York Times titled, Another Shooting, Another Gun Debate. Will the Outcome be the Same? tried to push stricter gun control agenda. The way the authors Peter Baker and Michael D. Schear start the article creates a negative view over the gun and current administration, without even presenting any facts or statistics. Baker and Schear go on to say, “around 2:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, President Trump was in the study off the Oval Office when John F. Kelly, his chief of staff, arrived with news of a school shooting in Florida. Mr. Trump shook his head, according to an aide, and muttered, “Again.” Mark Barden was visiting a playground named for his 7-year-old son killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a friend texted him: Be careful watching television. It’s happening. Again. His senator, Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, heard about the Florida shooting while he was on his way to the Senate floor and ripped up his speech to declare that through inaction, “we are responsible” for a mass atrocity. Again. Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the Republican whip and gun rights supporter who was himself grievously wounded last year when a man opened fire at a congressional baseball practice, huddled with colleagues on the House floor, reliving his horror. He knew what was coming: the activists who in his view would exploit tragedies like his to advance their anti-gun agenda. Again” (Baker & Shear 2018). The authors of this article took four important figures in American society and used them to further their agenda. Donald Trump shaking his head and saying ‘again,’ senator Murphy saying, “we are responsible,” and representative Scalise reliving his horror, all play to the public’s sensitivity of having the better gun control debate. This implies that the leaders of the United States believe that it is time for a change and stickers gun control is necessary. The most decisive aspect of the quote mentioned above is involving Mark Barden. The authors used a past tragedy involving children being killed at school to further their agenda after Parkland. The writers used repetition of the word again to emphasis the fact that this shooting was just one of many. This article by the New York Times is just one of many written to try to persuade the American public.
Another example of media using school shootings to push their political agenda comes from the publication Gun News Daily. This article attacks democrats and those who called for stricter gun control after the Parkland, Florida shooting. According to Will Ellis, “whenever a mass shooting occurs in our country, there are many questions to be asked. Who was behind the attack? How did they orchestrate said attack? Did anyone have advanced knowledge of the attack? The Democrats forego these questions in favor of immediately pushing for more restrictive gun legislation. They rush to distort the truth about the events to support their agenda. It’s been just over a week since 19-year old gunman Nikolas Cruz took the lives of 17 students and faculty members at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Already the liberal media are exploiting survivors like the grieving and fragile Cameron Kasky as the face of gun control and ignoring what really went down (Ellis 2018).” This article uses the guns don’t kill people, people kill people debate. Both the articles from the New York Times and the one from Gun News Daily cover the same tragic incident about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. However, the authors write the articles in a way that depicts their views the gun control debates. This shows how easily changing the tone of a news article and report can sway the public’s views and opinions.
The first major school shooting covered by the news occurred on April 20th, 1999 in Littleton Colorado at Columbine High School. For weeks, months and years after Columbine, journalist examined every aspect from bullying to gun laws as contributing factors to the massacre. There have been nearly 200 school shootings and over one hundred eighty-seven thousand students involved since April 20th of 1999 (Cox & Rich 2018). The increase of media coverage after the Columbine High School shooting has raised the question, does media of mass murders encourage others to kill? A story written by Russell Frank from the Chicago Tribune examines this question. The author picks out several articles written within five days after the Parkland Shooting. Some of the article titles are “17 killed at Florida School: Toll May Climb”, “Here’s What We Know About the Suspect”, and “Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz: Guns, depression and a life in trouble.” These articles paint Nikolas Cruz as a troubled kid, who was bullied by his classmates, liked guns and had a violent past. They include pictures taken from the shooters Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Articles like these garner the most attention because humans are naturally curious and want to know who could have done such a horrific act. Russel Frank asks the question “can stoking this fascination cause harm? It is a natural impulse to want to learn about things like the mass shootings by digging into the suspects past. The news creating such detailed and specific profiles on shooters makes them household names in the United States just like celebrities like Kayne West, Brad Pitt, Hilary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Some experts believe that the increase in media attention after school shooting may encourage people to commit copycat crimes. Russell Frank used a quote in his article from the Chicago Tribune explaining this phenomenon. “Attention is attention and this is the ultimate attention-getting,” the principal of a West Paducah, Ky., high school told The New York Times after shootings at his school in 1997 and at a school in Springfield, Ore., six months later. “I mean, getting your picture on the cover of Time and Newsweek. That is going out in a blaze of glory” (Frank 2018). Chris Harper Mercer, the Umpqua gunman posted a chilling message online before killing ten people. The message read, “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight” (Berman & Dewey 2015). Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, points out that news media should limit coverage of school shootings in the same way that they tone down coverage of suicides because of fear of it becoming “contagious.” Tufekci recommends “avoid specifying the killer’s choice of weapons, avoid quoting his writings or utterances, delay releasing the suspect’s name and, to not add to the traumatizing of victims and their loved ones, resist the urge to interview victims and loved ones” (Frank 2018).
Mental health professionals recommend that journalist switch the focus from the suspect to the victims. This advice has yet to be heeded. When one searches Nikolas Cruz on google there are about 5,810,000 results, including articles, personal information, and pictures. In contrast when one searches for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting about 3,700,000 results come up with no pictures on the first page, no names, and no specific information. The news media focuses so much attention on the perpetrator that those who lost their lives are hidden on page twelve. The countless pictures of Nikolas Cruz that plaster the covers of newspapers across the world are ingrained into the minds of the American public. For students and adults who are desperate for attention, a guaranteed way to get your name and face in the news is to commit a heinous crime such as a school shooting.
The actions of journalists and news personal were intrusive and obtuse. They took the most tragic and emotional event in these students and teachers life and turned it into a story to try to get high ratings. Interviews with survivors of the shooting done immediately the event were shocking. The media take a shocked teenager and ask for an account of what happened then use that account as a basis for their next story. According to the Journal of Traumatic Stress “little is known about the psychological consequences of direct contact with news journalists and media coverage on victims, survivors, or the bereaved. The possibility of revictimization or exacerbation of stress and traumatic reactions is recognized within ethical and practical guidelines that have been developed for journalists covering violence and catastrophes. Based on case reports and interviews, it has been hypothesized that a traumatic event ruins the feeling of security and sense of being in control in the first place, with uncontrollable media intrusion prolonging the time of not being in control. The interviewee may be in shock, albeit they may act calmly and not understand that he or she is giving an interview, regretting it later. The interviewee does not control how the interview is used afterwards and it may be circulated on a distressingly large scale. The victim or survivor may be portrayed in the role of a hero or become stigmatized as a vulnerable person, both potentially harmful to the sense of self” (Haravuori 70-71). The news media use these student sources as a way to show the public that they were there, they have an inside story and care about the victims. This can sway the American public’s opinions on the shooting and make them more likely to fall victim to media bias. The news does a poor job of covering shootings in the United States. If the perpetrator of the crime happens to be African America, Middle Eastern, or Muslim the media focuses solely on these differences and blames them for the crime. In an interview done by Tracy Everbach, Meredith Clark and Gwendelyn S. Nisbett a confidential respondent stated, “when a white offender (usually male) attacks someone or a group of people, he is described as having mental issues, being an angel, having high marks in school, and never showing signs of malice. When an African American is deemed the offender, the media is quick to dig into this person’s past to pull out instances of school suspensions, single-parent households, drug use or gang involvement, as if these things and others justify the death.” This is directly connected to Nikolas Cruz and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. The first thing the media questioned was how a young white male could have done such a thing. The next thing they did was question his mental health and dig into his past. These questions and accusations are not always factual and can influence ideas and opinions.
After the shooting in Parkland Florida, the American people were bombarded with rumors, opinions, and deceit from numerous news outlets attempting to affect the public’s opinion on the tragedy. The media took a tragic story of young lives lost and turned it into an opportunity to voice their opinions. Some stations used it to preach gun control while some used it in the fight against gun control. The lives of the students, staff, and responding officers who were interviewed are forever changed. News media response in America after school shootings has a direct impact in the views, opinions, and lives of the American people.