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The media: Incentivizing criminals with celebrity coverage

The following piece, written by the editorial editors, reflects the majority opinion of the editorial board.

This is the first in a series of editorials that will investigate the recurring problem of mass shootings throughout the United States.

Social media and television networks erupted last Wednesday with the news of Bryce Williams, the begrudged ex-reporter from Roanoke, Virginia, who shot and killed journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward shortly before committing suicide.

This is just the latest in a flood of shootings that have plagued the news stream in recent months.

For college students, the thought of a campus shooting, though tucked into the back of the mind, is an ever-present reality.

A study by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, on comparative death rates from assault showed that violence in the United States has gone down by about half since the mid-1970s - from an average of 10 assault deaths per 100,000 people to around five.

However, in a report studying active shooting situations between 2000 and 2013, the FBI found that an average of 6.4 active shootings per year during the first seven years of the study jumped to 16.4 incidents per year by the end of the study.

So while the United States has become, in large, a less violent country, individual shooting sprees are on the rise.

This trend is prevalent nowhere more than in the news media.

"Increasingly, the decision what we will and will not see is not ours to make," columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote in the Miami Herald this past Sunday. "Increasingly, we are at the mercy, not simply of murderous monsters, but also of our own friends, family and colleagues who act as their henchmen, forwarding, re-tweeting and re-posting their grisly misdeeds."

Much of this is due to the competitive nature of the 24-hour news cycle. Reporters are constantly working to break more news than the next guy. Sometimes the end goal is the truth, but more often it is simply to blow away the competition.

When the rush, the very sensation that caused a reporter to enter the field in the first place, causes that reporter to sacrifice respect of the victims for an increase in viewers - that is where the media goes wrong.

The best example of this hubris is the Rolling Stone cover image of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Rolling Stone's editors saw this as a racy way to get their magazines off the shelves. But just take a moment to insert Kurt Cobain or Bruce Springsteen in Tsarnaev's place. The media has a knack of turning these murderers into rock stars.

It's true; there is an inherent newsworthiness to a shooter - oftentimes the lone outlier of the incident. Most victims were doing nothing but living their lives.

Viewers have a necessary desire to learn about these shooters because the things they did are dark and confusing. A journalist's first obligation is to the truth, and there is a lot of information that must be investigated. Did the shooter have pre-existing mental problems? Was he being treated for them? If so, how on earth did he get a gun?

But often, journalists forget about a secondary obligation - an obligation of loyalty to the citizens they work to inform and protect.

There is growing evidence that the media's extensive coverage of mass shootings is creating an incentive for future shooters. James Holmes, the self-proclaimed "Joker" who open-fired into an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, killing and injuring 70 people, now has a collection of fangirls who call themselves "Holmies."

More often than not, we are finding that these shootings were pre-meditated. These shooters had pre-written manifestos, took GoPro videos and even wrote in their journals about which actor they wanted to play themselves in a film. They wanted notoriety. And they were willing to go to extensive measures to get it.

The media should make it their objective to take the scope off the shooter and move it to the effect of shootings on the community. It's less of a matter of focusing on the shooter rather than on the victims, but moreover the tone the media uses.

The notable forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz has repeatedly outlined several guidelines for reporters covering mass shootings. He said, "If you don't want to propagate more mass murders don't start the story with sirens blaring. Don't have photographs of the killer. Don't make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story. Not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize this story to the affected community and as boring as possible in every other market."

The intense focus on these shooters is part of our natural curiosity to ask the question "why?" Why does someone feel the need to enter a movie theater, a church or a school and kill dozens of innocent, unassuming people?

The road toward answering that question is a hazy one, potholed with sticky race relations, partisan campaigns over gun control legislation and a slow-to-respond mental health system. However, the system that can make significant change on this matter now is the system that holds the largest sway over public perception - the media.

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