Media Coverage of Parkland Florida Shooting
Disaster Response and the Public
September 6, 2018
Doctor John Fisher
Media Coverage of Parkland Florida Shooting
The media has a responsibility to inform the public and provide accurate information concerning events that occur locally, nationally and internationally. The media responded to the Parkland Florida shooting but framed their reporting to promote gun control and encourage stronger mental health screenings. The reporting including interviews from underage teenagers and publishing legally obtained confidential private material. Additionally they sensationalized the perpetrator, which tends to promote copycat shootings. This case study examines the media coverage, provides the recommendations to scrutinize the media coverage and how those recommendations can be implemented.
Description of the Case
On February 14, 2018 at about 2:20 p.m., a former student (Nikolas Cruz) of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida pulled the fire alarm. As students proceeded to evacuate the building, Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rife. The shooting lasted six minutes and left 17 dead and 17 wounded people. Cruz was arrested about an hour and a half later.
The media covering the event had hidden agendas. The news reports were framed to promote gun control and mental illness. The reports also sensationalized the victims and the event. Some of the processes utilized by the media were questionable. The coverage of the event spawns the following questions. Does the media coverage inspire copycat shootings? Even though obtaining underage witness information can be legal, is it ethical? Is publishing any legally obtained information ethical? Does the media influence policy makers to make changes to gun control and mental illness?
Mass shootings always have high media coverage. The seriousness of shootings is severe and the media has a tendency to frame the mass shootings as either more frequent or more deadly. There is also a tendency to focus on issues of gun control and mental illness. The objective of journalists is to bring the story to the public and that may override some ethical results. In the shooting incident in Parkland, underage witnesses were interviewed as early as the day after the incident. While parental permission had been obtained, the question remains whether the interview was an ethical step and a necessary one to bring the story to the public.
A common practice with journalists is to report on the perpetrator. The news coverage often gives more attention to the individual(s) who committed the crime rather than the victims. In a study following three major school shootings, the photos used indicated a ratio of 16 to 1 of perpetrator to victims (Smith Dahmen, 2018). The study of the media contagion effect with suicide parallels the mass shootings. The intense sensationalization of the perpetrator and the event can inspire copycat shootings.
The effects of the media coverage impact policy makers, the American Rife Association, mental health individuals and professionals, the families of the victims, the school, and essentially the entire public. The impact of this news story has the greatest impact on those suffering from mental illness, gun control advocates and opponents and underage witnesses.
The framing done by the media tended to focus on the two main debates of gun access and mental health. The initial headlines tended to present the mental illness explanation rather than focusing on how he was able to buy a gun in the first place. The headlines used terminology such as “troubled former student” and “maniac” to support their mental illness theory (Lombardi, 2018).
Even if mental health were the issue with the Parkland Florida shooting, it does not mean that a person with a mental illness is predisposed to perform a violent act. It also does not mean that a person who performs a violent shooting act must be mentally ill. The call to focus on mental health problems to prevent future mass shootings is important but is not likely to have any affect on gun violence (Frank, 2018). Additionally, a mass killer’s behavior is not pinpointed to one single cause. There is usually a list of attributes that contribute to the behavior even if one factor stands out (Meindl & Ivy, 2018).
The Sun Sentinel came under fire when it published confidential information from Cruz’s educational record. Other media organizations supported the Sun Sentinel to prevent court proceedings against the Sun Sentinel and two of its reporters. The editor-in-chief of the Sun Sentinel said, “The Sun Sentinel obtained this report lawfully, found its contents to be of great public interest, and did its duty” (Olmeda, 2018). While the record was obtained legally and the media organizations supported the release of information, it is debatable whether the media reported ethically.
The day after the shooting, NBC interviewed teenaged Samantha Grady, a witness to the shooting of her classmate and best friend. It was clear that Grady was upset and traumatized. While NBC has obtained permission from Grady’s parents, the interview was exploitative. The question is widely debated on whether a teenager can give informed consent and if so, if it is ethical to conduct the interview (Farhi, 2018).
Key Decision Criteria
The difficultly with solving the issues with media coverage involve the balance of reporting and crossing the line. News outlets have a responsibility to inform the public and to accurately report the incidents. Even when the journalists stay within the outlines of their legal obligations, they still can have an influence by framing their articles to sway the public.
In order to achieve balanced reporting, the articles need to focus on facts and not assumptions. The coverage of the perpetrator needs to eliminate sensation and the name of the individual. The articles should not be framed to impact policies or sway public opinion with inaccurate information or deductions. Lastly, information obtained legally must be scrutinized to ascertain if publication is ethical.
The first step would be to eliminate the name of the perpetrator from all news coverage. This allows copycats to realize that there will not be any fame associated with a mass shooting.
All news headlines should reflect the incident accurately and avoid framing. Framing can influence the public to believe violence stems from mental illness and that all crimes are committed with guns.
Interviews with underage witnesses should be subject to a verification process or eliminated entirely. Confidential information obtained legally should be reviewed to determine if is necessary to the story and if it violates any individual’s privacy.
The media can and will report the news. The balance between legal and ethical will always be debatable. Each media outlet defines the interpretation of what is newsworthy differently. Since the media relies on the first amendment rights there may be little that can be done to require them to report responsibly. The only recommendation provided here is to eliminate the name of the perpetrator from coverage.
Action and Implementation Plan
There are a number of campaigns established to limit or eliminate the perpetrator’s name from being published. While media has shown some restraint, journalists have not eliminated the notoriety that accompanies a mass shooting. Since the media has shown restraint in other cases once researchers provided evidence that a suicide can create a contagion, it is possible to accumulate a similar type research for mass shooters.
The action would be to conduct a study illustrating the influence the media has for copycat shooters and provide this information to media organizations.
Farhi, P. (2018, February 15). Explaining or exploiting? A mass shooting raises questions about media coverage. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/explaining-or-exploiting-a-mass-shooting-raises-questions-about-media-coverage/2018/02/15/18a00da6-1274-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html
Frank, N. (2018, June 25). Myths About Mass Shootings. Retrieved from https://hubpages.com/politics/Myths-About-Mass-Shootings
Lombardi, D. (2018). Critical Discourse Analysis of online News Headlines: A Case of the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting. Retrieved from https://muep.mau.se/handle/2043/25801
Meindl, J. N., Ivy, J. W. (2018, February 3). Reducing Media-Induced Mass Killings: Lessons From Suicide Prevention. American Behavioral Scientist 62(2), 242-259. doi:10.1177/0002764218756918
Olmeda, R. (2018, August 16). Judge blasts Sun Sentinel for publishing confidential information in Parkland school shooting case. Retrieved from http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-florida-school-shooting-contempt-hearing-20180814-story.html
Smith Dahmen, N. (2018). Visually Reporting Mass Shootings: U.S. Newspaper Photographic Coverage of Three Mass School Shootings. American Behavorial Scientist 62(2) 163-180. doi:10.1177/0002764218756921