TWENTY years ago, I was working as a reporter in one of Washington's top radio news stations. It was during radio news' heyday: there were dozens of radio stations in the District and in Maryland that had fully operating newsrooms, with news anchors and reporters who worked the streets and the phone to flesh out stories.
At that time, there had been a series of mass shooting incidents across the country: one in Texas, another in the Midwest, and finally, a man who put on a Nazi uniform and shot into a crowd of people in New York.
My news director assigned me to telephone psychology professors in area universities to ask them why they thought this string of shooting incidents had occurred.
I expected the three psychologists I called to tell me that these shootings were a symptom of our troubled, anonymous society.
Instead, each of them told me that the second and third shooting incidents were "copycat" crimes -- incidents in which troubled men saw news reports of the previous mass shooting, and wanted the same kind of national attention the previous shooter had received.
I asked one of these college psychologists how this could be. We are simply reporting the news, I said. How could the media be responsible for shootings that occurred over and over?
"You are glamorizing the crime," I was told.
"When you lead your newscasts with the shooting or when newspapers put the shooter's picture on the front page, a troubled person can see the crime as a visible way to get attention."
What the public needs
Both my news director and I found this insight to be very disturbing.
We reported the psychologists' comments in that afternoon's newscasts, and about a week later we met in a staff meeting. We spent several hours discussing the meaning of news, what our listeners want to know and what they need to know to be productive, knowledgeable members of society. And we decided that from then on we would change the way we covered mass shooting incidents in the future.
No longer would we lead with such stories, unless a mass shooting occurred in our city. We would mention the story at the end of a newscast, because our listeners needed to be informed about all of the day's events, no matter how unpleasant.
But we would not treat the shooter with the respectful tone we had used in the past. Instead of "a man with a gun", for instance, we would say, "some nut with a gun."
We would reflect the community's disgust and disbelief over the behavior of a person who would pick up a gun and hurt innocent people.
Today, it would be unacceptable to call a gunman a "nut" or "crackpot" in a newscast. But there are ways to report the facts of an event without turning the gunman into a social icon.
Susan Villani, a child psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, says newspapers and television stations should think twice before they lead with a shooting that occurs outside of Maryland or publish the name or photograph of the suspect.
Issues, not icons
"Children are affected by these stories," Ms. Villani says. "Parents have the responsibility of monitoring what their children see, but when the news media uses the suspect's name and picture repeatedly, they have elevated the suspect to an icon status.
Children and adults are attracted to icon figures and people who have name recognition status. The media must be extremely careful about who they help elevate to this media icon position."
Ms. Villani suggests that the media focus on what she calls the "systems issues" of such an event. For example, did the child charged in the recent Oregon school shooting have health insurance that covered visits with a psychiatrist?
Besides relating the incident itself and the public horror and grief surrounding it, how can the news media inform the rest of us how to avoid such situations in the future, or in our own towns?
There have been seven shootings involving teen-age boys in this country in the past 15 months. I am sure I speak for many people in Maryland when I think, "God, don't let it happen here." I hope and pray the members of the news media are taking a serious look at how they cover these tragedies.
This is a good time for Maryland's news operations to reconsider how their coverage of such stories can be informative without laying the groundwork for troubled Maryland teens who could decide to take a similar bloody route to national infamy.
Pat Mochel has been a news reporter and anchor at WBAL-TV, WBAL-AM, WWMX-FM and WLIF-FM. She is a member of Sheppard Pratt's Coalition for Postive Media.
Pub Date: 6/22/98