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Keep Connecticut shooting in context

James Alan Fox

December 16, 2012

As a criminologist who has studied mass shootings for decades, I have grown accustomed to the massive, non-stop media attention devoted to mass killings when they occur, as well as to the chaotic competition among reporters to uncover breaking news developments. However, the seemingly insatiable need among some journalists and on-air reporters to create a dramatic context for tragedy has grown increasingly mystifying to me.

Barely two hours after Tuesday's shooting at a Portland, Ore., shopping mall, I received several calls from the Far West inquiring whether mass shootings were on the rise. Following high-profile massacres in Aurora, Colo. and Seattle earlier this year, reporters wanted to confirm their perceptions with reality. They also wanted to know whether the Oregon gunman, who killed two people before committing suicide at the Clackamas Town Center Mall, may have been modeling his attack on the Aurora, Colo. theater massacre.

I assured these reporters that the latest shooting was not reflective of an upward trajectory. Rather, our collective memories apparently lose sight of other violent moments in recent history when mass shootings have been clustered closely in time, for the most part out of sheer coincidence. Although there have been cases in which mass gunmen have drawn inspiration from others who preceded them, and perhaps have wanted a share of the notoriety that follows, the impact of copycatting is often overstated.

Then, of course, came Friday's massive shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that claimed that lives of more than two dozen victims, mostly young children. As the horror was unfolding and before any perpetrator or motive was identified, scores of journalists from here and abroad, were phoning to ask whether this was perhaps the worst school shooting in history. It didn't matter that deadlier episodes had happened overseas (the 2004 school siege by armed Muslim guerrillias in Beslan, Russia, in which the death toll topped 350, including scores of children); at a college setting (Virginia Tech in 2007 in which 33, including the gunman, died); or involving means other than gunfire (the 1927 bombing of a school in Bath, Mich., in which 45 were killed). Reporters were eager to declare the Sandy Hook massacre as some type a new record.

There isn't a Hall of Fame for criminals, even though some people are intensely fascinated with their biographies. There is no purpose in looking for record-setting. Does the pain and suffering associated with the Sandy Hook school shooting change in any way if it is the largest in history? Would that make this episode any more significant or tragic?

Even though the nature and number of incidents today are not very different from years ago, one thing definitely has changed -- the extent and style of news coverage. In an earlier era, the major networks did not have the capability to be on the scene reporting live and with video within minutes of a shooting spree. And cable news channels weren't around to provide marathon coverage of these events.

Back in 1966, when Charles Whitman opened fire from a tower on the University of Texas campus, and killed 16 people and wounded 31 others, there wasn't a line of satellite trucks parked at the shooting site. And in 1989 -- when Patrick Purdy turned the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., into his personal war zone with an AK-47 which he used to kill five children and wound 29 other students and one teacher -- news outlets did not as yet have the means to transmit satellite images of frightened children running for their lives for instantaneous display on our television screens.

It wasn't commonplace years ago to have a swarm of reporters on the scene with microphones and cameras just in time to interview surviving children with fresh tears in their eyes. We also didn't hear an array of eye witnesses and emergency responders talk about a "parent's worst nightmare" or describe the scene as the worst they've encounter in their careers. And we certainly did not have folks tweeting updates from location.

So, if it seems like these dreadful crimes are occurring more frequently, it is really the immediacy and pervasiveness of media coverage that creates the impression. And thanks to state-of-the-art technology, it can feel as though the tragedy happened in your own backyard.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and author of Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College..