Staff Editorial

Media Should Inform, Not Exploit, in Times of Tragedy

Michen Dewey | The PHOENIXThe names of the 58 victims of the Las Vegas massacre, listed here, should be remembered over the shooter's.

In the days following the Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre that left 58 dead and nearly 500 injured, social media became home to a slew of hoaxes.

False reports naming the wrong man as the shooter circulated Facebook and Twitter, and the top results for a Google search of that innocent man’s name were sites linking him to Las Vegas.

While these social media and search sites got deserved heat for perpetuating falsities — with many quickly questioning the responsibility of these sites’ directors to filter this fake news — mainstream media aren’t without their own blame.

As student journalists, we know the importance of reporting in times of crisis and commend those journalists who reported in a sensitive manner while the country was in shock and needed answers.

But unfortunately, not all reporting is equal. In the hours and days after the Vegas shooting — the deadliest in modern U.S. history — The PHOENIX editorial board noticed some irresponsible commonalities in the media’s coverage that often follows these too-frequent acts of violence.

Shortly after the shooting occurred, some media sites took a mad grab for any details they could find about the shooter. Several headlines focused on seemingly unrelated facts from the shooter’s background. For example, one headline from the New York Daily News declared that the shooter’s “father was bank robber on FBI Most Wanted list” while CNN reported “Las Vegas shooter took 20 cruises, some to foreign ports.” Even as days pass from the shooting, these irrelevant details continue to emerge and circulate media.

Local news got in on the action, too, with the Chicago Tribune detailing the life of the shooter’s father, a Chicago native. In a time of vast confusion and mourning, it seemed out of place to provide details that weren’t informing the public of the most relevant information. These reports likely did little to help investigators do their jobs or advance the public’s common interest; instead they provided a platform for any detail that would keep the legacy of the shooter alive, even after his death.

Media received further criticism for their descriptions of the shooter himself. British newspaper The Independent announced the shooter was “a wealthy gambler who owned homes in four states,” while others called him a “lone wolf,” a term scorned for seeming to portray the shooter as an outlier, while shooters of color have been given less flattering portrayals.

Over and over, these reports have beared one name in common: the name of the shooter. Yet, the names of the shooters’ victims and those who acted heroically, even in the face of terror, are far less likely to come to mind.

We understand the public’s desire and need to know who committed this crime, and we understand it’s easier to remember his name rather than the 58 names of his victims. But the photos circulating the media of the shooter’s hotel room from where he fired his fatal rounds seem far less necessary for the public to see, lest they inspire others to copy the shooter’s strategy of slaughter, similar to when attacks were inspired by the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. Likewise, reporting details of the shooter’s mundane hobbies before the massacre paint the man as average rather than a mass murderer.

While reporting on Vegas, CNN’s Anderson Cooper referred to his past experience covering the Aurora shooting. Back then, he spoke to the brother of victim Jessica Ghawi. Jessica’s brother, Jordan, expressed his desire for media to talk less about the shooters and more about the victims.

While CNN and its 24-hour news cycle isn’t perfect, with a penchant for reporting even the smallest of developments in a way that keeps the tragedy in focus at all times, we commend Cooper’s decision not to name the shooter of the Las Vegas massacre.

Jordan’s point seems to ring true; by repeating the shooter’s name, headline after headline, he gains notoriety for his crime. We don’t know yet the motive behind this massacre, but through continuous public speculation, we risk turning the shooter into an icon of infamy. This, in turn, downplays the severity of the act and the damage it caused.

Instead of adding to the proliferation of the shooter’s name through headlines and overexposure, we have decided to name some more notable people involved in Vegas, as many media outlets have also done: the heroes. These are just a few of the people who helped the strangers around them in the most devastating of circumstances.

  • Husband and wife Kevin and Dawn-Marie Gray (a former paramedic) began providing medical assistance to the injured once the gunfire stopped.
  • Jonathan Smith saved around 30 people before getting shot in the neck.
  • Dean McAuley, an off-duty firefighter, chose to stay and provide medical treatment to those in need — saving a 17-year-old girl — even though he could’ve gotten out of the fest safely with his friends.
  • Dennis Guerrero, a freelance photographer who had left the media tent at the time of the shooting to stand in the disabled viewing area, helped a woman in a wheelchair and drove several strangers to safety in his truck.

It’s the media’s duty to report responsibly and minimize harm while doing so. Reporting basic details to inform the public in times of tragedy is necessary; speculating on details to satisfy morbid curiosity is not. Journalists must be mindful of honoring the memories of those hurt by violence rather than that of the shooter himself.

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