Among the most vexing challenges facing America is the increase in mass shootings even as gun homicide rates, overall, have declined. This epidemic has the feel of a crisis of confidence in the social compact itself, particularly when the victims of mass violence are children. No doubt, the causes of this crisis are multifarious, and solutions — if they exist — will be holistic.
It is regrettable that those who are ostensibly dedicated to eradicating mass gun violence seem to be working at cross purposes; so few are willing to look critically at their deeply-held convictions. With the stakes so high, everyone from politicians to activists to the media must be incredibly thoughtful and purposeful. Unfortunately, one product of the Parkland shootings was reckless press coverage.
The immediate aftermath of the massacre of high school students and their teachers in Florida was typified by breathless media coverage of their alleged murderer. This sadly typical dynamic was made worse by the fact that some in the press fixated on the ultimately baseless claim that the shooter was a member of a white supremacist group; a claim that amounted to free advertising for the organization. This episode is a reminder of how important it is not to rush to politically motivated conclusions in a crisis.
An invaluable forensic analysis of this incident in Politico identified a claim by the Anti-Defamation League as its source. On Feb. 15, the ADL revealed that a spokesperson for the white nationalist organization Republic of Florida (ROF) told them that the alleged shooter was a member of their group, but that they had no role in this shooting.
This episode is a reminder of how important it is not to rush to politically motivated conclusions in a crisis.
The comment, which seemed like a preemptive disavowal of an alleged murderer, lent legitimacy to the claim. Still, law enforcement agencies said they had no information to support the ROF’s assertions. News outlets that tried to verify this claim found only tenuous support from the alleged shooter's classmates, who could only corroborate their belief that the confessed shooter harbored bigoted sentiments about minorities.
Still, plenty of media organizations decided to run with this story anyway, in the process giving the ROF’s spokesperson, Jordan Jereb, a platform. Jereb told the Associated Press that his group supports the creation of a “white ethno-state,” and that the organization holds “spontaneous random demonstrations.” ABC News recounted in a since-deleted report Jereb’s description of his group as a “white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics.” “I’m not trying to glorify it, but he was pretty efficient in what he did,” Jereb told The Daily Beast. “He probably used that training to do what he did yesterday.” In other words, according to Jereb, it was the training the confessed killer received that made him a more effective mass murderer.
These are irresponsible assertions to broadcast without qualification, much less in the immediate aftermath of the deadliest high school shooting in the country’s history. And of course, they were all based on a hoax, anyway.
Jereb soon confessed that he had the alleged killer confused with another member of his organization and blamed the “lying Jew media” for running with his contentions. The ADL, it seems, was led on this snipe hunt by a series of mischievous posts on the message board 4chan. (Remember, 4chan was also the source of claims that deliberately misidentified the Las Vegas gunman — a claim that was soon finding its way to the top of Google’s algorithmically generated news feeds and onto blogs that make conspiracy theorizing central to their business model.)
The AP confessed in a statement that the information “reflected in the wire” was based on claims made by “the leader of Republic of Florida,” but was not supported by “continued reporting.”
Aspiring mass murders have a tendency to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs in the hopes that it all generates exposure once the deed is done.
The frenzied atmosphere post-mass casualty event explains a lot of this, of course. It explains why reporters and media personalities (an important distinction) seemed willing to believe this attention-seeker. But more broadly speaking, there is another reason why the media needs to exercise more restraint when reporting on shooters.
We know that mass killers, particularly the young, study the coverage of murder sprees. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci demonstrated, aspiring mass murders have a tendency to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs — print and video — in the hopes that it all generates exposure once the deed is done. Too often, news outlets dutifully oblige the killers’ requests. “Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight,” wrote the gunman who killed ten people at an Oregon community college in 2015 amid a wistful rumination on way murder can overcome lonely anonymity. This particular shooter was also infatuated with Nazi symbolism.
News media has made a habit of debunking the post-shooting hoaxes that reliably spring up on the more dimly lit corners of the internet, even if that misinformation does not appear to have much purchase. This is a public service, but it is not without risk. Even a disapproving signal boost by respectable mainstream outlets may satisfy the hoaxers, perpetuating the cycle. Moreover, as this most recent episode demonstrates, even respected reporters are susceptible to bias-confirming disinformation.
The phenomenon of mass shootings requires a solution, and part of that solution must address the dangers of bias-confirming voyeurism.
For some, the extent to which the mainstream press has provided fringe organizations with coverage disproportionate to their relative influence has become a source of consternation. Others have expressed frustration over the extent to which news media seems committed to providing saturation coverage to successful mass shooters. Studies suggest that “media contagion” creates incentives for psychologically disturbed individuals who seek validation, even if it takes the form of negative public attention. In Parkland, we see the effects of both happening at once.
The press is bound to make mistakes, of course. And errors like these do not excuse the legislative gaps that allow prospective mass shooters to acquire the weapons they use or the carelessness with which law enforcement handles early warning signs or an American society that has fetishized violence or a mental health infrastructure that is not equipped to take proactive measures.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of mass shootings requires a solution, and part of that solution must address the dangers of bias-confirming voyeurism.
As the nation engages in yet another bout of introspection and self-criticism, as it should, the media must also look inward. Mass shootings are a societal ill, and it is incumbent on every element of society — including its Fourth Estate — to come to terms with its role in compounding the problem.
Noah Rothman is the Associate Editor of COMMENTARY Magazine.