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Media should spend less time humanizing shooters with unnecessary details

James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 6:00 a.m. ET Aug. 9, 2019 | Updated 11:21 a.m. ET Aug. 9, 2019

The style of television news reporting as these tragedies unfold inadvertently contributes to the contagion of killing.

Most of the attention since last weekend's horrible shooting spree in El Paso, especially from Democrats, has focused on the disturbing rise in hate-inspired violence. Although concern regarding the dangerous legions of white supremacists in our midst as well as Donald Trump's incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric is surely justified, most mass killings are not tied to racial animus. Of course, easy access to guns, the common denominator to all mass shootings, makes hate-mongers and other revenge-seekers a much greater threat to our safety.

After many years reflecting a flat trend-line, there has been a pronounced spike in deadly mass shootings as of late. Since the beginning of 2018, according to the AP/USA Today/Northeastern University Mass Murder Database, the nation has witnessed 40 mass shootings, nearly half in public places, each claiming the lives of four or more victims I emphasize the word "deadly" to distinguish these extreme and highly visible crimes from the Gun Violence Archive's one-a-day variety of mass shootings, of which only 7% are mass killings.

Shootings are contagious

Much of the recent clustering of deadly shooting rampages reflects a contagion effect(and we have experienced short-term spikes before). This has prompted some observers to urge the media not to identify mass shooters that we should not speak the names of those who commit unspeakable atrocities. Of course, the news must be reported, including the basic information about the assailant. Moreover, it is the act, not the actor, that like-minded individuals admire, applaud and potentially copy.

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What seems clear, on the other hand, is that the style of television news reporting as these tragedies unfold inadvertently contributes to the contagion of killing. Gripping cellphone videos of frightened people running from the scene, recordings of awful screams amidst the sound of rapid-fire gunfire, and heart-wrenching images of grief-stricken families with tears filling their eyes appropriately arouse the sympathies of most viewers as intended.

Focus on strength of the communities

But a few viewers on the fringe of reality who identify with the power of the perpetrator may have a very different reaction. They revel in the scenes of carnage and chaos. They would love to replicate the bloodletting in their own communities, seeing this as a way to punish society or some segment of it for their own disenchantment and misery.

Rather than featuring so many images of vulnerability and suffering, the focus needs to be on strength and resilience, such as the citizens of El Paso lining up to donate blood. That sends a very different message to those who might identify with the gunman. Whatever personal or political agenda motivated the assault, it ultimately led to defeat. Death or prison for the assailant, survival for the community.

As time moves on bringing about the inevitable search for answers, the extended news coverage must stick to the essential facts, and avoid the fluff. Reports about the perpetrator's last meal before the attack, his hobbies and habits and testimonials from his friends and family should be curtailed. Such stories only humanize a despicable wrongdoer, elevating him as someone heroic in the eyes of those with similar frustrations in life.

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Along these same lines, the full text or video of a mass killer's ugly rants and justifications for murder need not be publicized; the basic gist will do. Plus, we should not characterize such material as a "manifesto," a term that only suggests it to be an important document which deserves to be digested.

In the wake of tragedy, Americans are eager to make some sense of senseless violence. But in the pursuit of understanding, as details surface pertaining to the investigation of these crimes and those who committed them, it is critical not to cross the line from news reporting to celebrity watch. Too much information in the public forum about a killer's views and biography has its downsides.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox