School shootings in the media

By Malachite Karpie-Jones

Opinion Contributor

Less than two hours after October ended, a month that saw ten separate incidents across the nation, gunshots rang again late Halloween night on North Carolina’s Winston-Salem State University. Anthony White Jr., a 19-year-old sophomore from Charlotte, was shot and killed around 1:20 a.m. on November 1st after returning from an on-campus Halloween homecoming event. The assailant, 21 year old former WSSU student Jarett Moore, then shot and injured another passing students before being pursued and apprehended by campus police. Winston-Salem’s tragedy became the 58th on-campus shooting in 2015, our nation’s 156th since Sandy Hook in late 2012.

One month earlier,  on October 1, Umpqua Community College played victim to Oregon’s deadliest mass shooting after Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, gunned down eight students and an assistant professor before turning the weapon on himself.  Just over a week later on October 9, both Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University had active shooter situations on the same day that left two students dead, four injured, and countless families, friends and communities reeling for answers in a country in the midst of a true epidemic.

Many who are enraged by the dozens of attacks each year are quick to throw the blame at America’s gun legislation, one that allows its citizens to acquire firearms with moderate ease. An extreme majority of school shootings over the past two years have been committed with weapons legally obtained in their respective states. Whether the shooter himself was a member of his community’s gun club, or the young perpetrator managed to get his hands on his father’s hunting rifle, many Americans live in a widely normalized culture of its citizens owning guns. Between 30 and 40 million US homes, a number often disputed and impossible to pinpoint, possess some sort of firearms.

Is this mass theoretical arsenal, and specifically its distributors and regulators, the telltale cause of all the recent bloodshed on educational institutions? It’s very possible. But we live in a country where the second amendment has been in place for over 200 years. People have had undisputedly easier access to purchasing and owning a gun over the course of our nation’s history than they have in the past five years. Those 156 shootings since the Newtown Tragedy came during an era where President Barack Obama was clear about the graveness of necessary gun control. Talk of universal background checks for firearm purchases, banning the purchase of assault weapons, and implementing armed security guards in schools were all top priorities of the Obama administration since early 2013. While some proposals and legislations fell apart in our largely right wing Congress, it became clear that the entire country was sick of mindless killings in its schools and mandated some sort of change. How does a country now treating gun control as a top concern then follow up with at least a school shooting every week since Sandy Hook?

We live in a nation of media monsters; their voices capable of effortlessly finding any person on any platform. From TV to radio, Twitter to reddit, it’s near impossible to overlook the day’s news in a country captivated by glowing screens. Christopher Harper-Mercer, the man who killed nine in Umpqua Community College’s murder-suicide last month, had a traceable internet presence, just like you and I.

Harper-Mercer posted this comment in reference to another incident that took place in late summer of this year:

“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 like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

On August 26, news reporter Alison Parker, 24, and photojournalist Adam Ward, 27, were shot and killed by ex-colleague Vester Lee Flannigan II on live television. Flannigan, the shooter, also recorded the killings in a chilling 30 second, point of view cell phone video that he subsequently uploaded onto Twitter. After Flannigan took his life following a police pursuit, the media coverage of the shocking incident plastered his name, image, and yes, even his graphic POV video of the shooting, across every platform in the country.

Of course multiple outlets were barraged with criticism of how the incident was covered, but not after millions of eyes had access to the bloodshed. While the video autoplay feature on social media, specifically on Twitter, was blamed for many unintentionally watching two people get shot, this is clear-cut example of how the nation’s media agenda places emphasis on certain events rather than others. Violence is normalized in America. Violence captivates us. Violence sells. The gatekeepers at CNN, FOX, and MSNBC know this. I’m not saying our news outlets shouldn’t report mass shootings; it’s integral that they do. But there’s the phrase “copycat shooter” for a reason. Killers like Flannigan and Harper-Mercer, as well as countless others before and after, know they’ll be thrown “in the limelight.”

The way in which media covers instances of mass shootings, especially those in schools, has to become the new mandated change. Just using the shooter’s name and image a few too many times, or the phrases “lone wolf,” “renegade,” and even “school shooter,” invoke qualities that individualize and martyrize previous killers in the eyes of the individuals who will commit these crimes. Troubled minds will look to emulate, or even “one up,” the shooters. This is not a theory, but a trend. The incidents like Columbine and Virginia Tech that received wide media coverage had a slew of proven “copycat” killings, and many more proposed copycat attacks that were luckily stopped before it’s too late. With Columbine alone, there were 21 attacks and 53 other murder plots thwarted that have direct evidence validating the respective assailants drawing some sort of motivation from the 1999 high school massacre. More recently, the 2014 Isla Vista killings near the University of California, Santa Barbara, featured an autobiographical manifesto from the killer, a common theme notably popularized by the Unabomber in the 1990s. These manifestos are often posted online or mass spread in some other way, further planting the seeds of copycat killings and normalizing this type of behavior in the public eye.

With the numbers of school shootings surging in the heyday of social media, the young, malleable minds of this nation are only being more and more normalized to killing as we dissect every fatal incident on every single network. Gun control is a good start for the most part, but our two centuries of living with the Second Amendment haven’t heeded anything near the numbers of mass shootings we’re seeing today. It’s time to stop pointing the finger at gun shops and regulators and start holding the newsroom accountable.


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