Tue July 24, 2012
Aurora Theater Shootings

Colorado’s Mass Shootings: Inside the Media Maelstrom

Last week’s deadly shooting in an Aurora movie theater has drawn comparisons to Colorado’s other memorable tragedy, Columbine. A lot of things have changed since 1999 – including the way such events are reported in the media.

As soon as the details of the event emerged on Friday, the tone of the coverage started to change.

“The thing that you see that’s different between Columbine and today is a very much heightened sensitivity that you don’t highlight the shooter,”says Marguerite Moritz, a journalism professor and UNESCO chair at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

It’s a change that prompted the local NBC affiliate, 9News, to explain their coverage policy on the air Monday.

“9News will use the suspect’s name and photo in stories that are about him and about his trial,” read Co-Anchor Kyle Clark. “We will not be using his name and photo in stories about his victims, about their recovery, and about the healing of our community. We’re trying to provide information without providing the attention he may be out for.”

This focus also seemed clear over the weekend when both President Barack Obama and Governor John Hickenlooper didn’t mention the alleged shooter by name. But that could become more difficult once court proceedings gain steam says Dave Cullen. He wrote “Columbine,” about the 1999 shooting.

“It will go on for a long time. I don’t know of any comparable way for the next year or so to keep bringing up the victim’s stories, it’s a little harder to do,” he says.

Cullen covered Columbine as a freelance journalist for Salon.com and the New York Times. He had an editorial over the weekend in the Times cautioning media and the public against drawing conclusions about shooting suspect James Holmes. He says a lot of the initial information reported about the Columbine gunmen was incorrect.

“There were fragments of evidence that pointed in one direction. But you take a bunch of fragments and put them together usually you come up with a picture that’s wrong, and that’s what we did,” he says.

The Holmes family is already crying foul over national media reports that implied Holmes’ mother, Arlene, knew her son was troubled. The dispute centers around an early morning phone call from ABC News on Friday, which led to this statement:

“He asked if I was Arlene Holmes and if my son was James Holmes who lives in Aurora, Colorado. I answered yes, you have the right person. I was referring to myself.”

ABC is standing by how it reported the phone call. It’s already had to correct one statement by a reporter that suggested the shooting suspect could be a member of the Colorado Tea Party.

As more profiles emerge about James Holmes, Al Tompkins advises media consumers to be leery of people claiming to know the suspected shooter. Tompkins is with the Florida-based Poynter Institute, which trains and advises journalists

“The fact of the matter is that very often people who think they know an individual only know a sliver about them,” he says.

Tompkins sent out a tip sheet for reporters covering the event. In it he cautions reporters to avoid shorthand whenever possible.

“I wouldn’t call it the Aurora shooting, I wouldn’t call it the theater shooting, I wouldn’t call it the Batman shooting,” he says. “Partly because it’s unfair to all of them.”

A better description, he says, would be “a shooting that occurred in a movie theater in Aurora.”

But these are only suggestions, and as CU’s Marguerite Moritz says there are no rules.

“There are choices all along the way that news managers, journalists in the field have to make. How do we approach this? Rather than it being a matter of right and wrong, it’s a matter of sensitivity and choice, and they’re rarely easy choices,” she says.

The last part of that choice includes context. Mass murder is rare, says Tompkins who references Federal Bureau of Investigation data.

Tompkins, Moritz and others will be watching the positive and negative impacts that could stem from all these decisions in the days and weeks ahead.

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