Do we need to cover this?

I teach at a university. While I wouldn’t say I walk around in fear of a student rampage, since Virginia Tech it occasionally crosses my mind. I understand there’s probably a greater likelihood of my getting hit by a car on campus by a texting student driver, but of course, there’s something deeply unsettling about shooting rampages.

A student at the University of Maryland at College Park was just arrested for making threats to shoot up the campus. He explicitly said that he wanted to “kill enough people to make it to national news.” And indeed, even his mere threat to do so made national news.

Given that national coverage tends to spur copycats, and this person is explicitly stating he wants national news coverage, can I ask why we don’t demand that national news stop covering these stories? I understand that they have a right to cover these stories, I understand that people find them terribly interesting. I can also see how it could be an important local story. But seriously, doesn’t the possibility of copycats suggest these should not be covered? Apparently not:

“One of our jobs is to cover the story. If a school shooting takes place, there is no way we cannot cover it.,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches Broadcasting and Online Ethics at the Poynter Institute. “Having said that though, we must be responsible for the tone and degree of our coverage….”

Aren’t the consequences of such coverage outweighed by the benefits of reporting it? Must absolutely everything be reported? Can reporters never use their judgment?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. While it certainly is true that the mews networks have a right to cover these stories, it ignores the reason they do so: sensational stories drive up ratings, especially ones that stoke fears. I’m sorry, but some guy at some college threatening violence just isn’t a nationally important story.

    Related, but not nearly carrying the potential downside to what you are discussing Rose, this morning driving to work there was a story that got a lot of play where a flight attendant had a bit of a crying jag/panic attack breakdown on her flight, and had to be escorted off the plane. All I could think of when I was listening to the story was, why is this what we are discussing today?

    • That’s so not newsworthy, it’s almost awesome.

      I know they earn something from it. But it’s nearly a form of blood money.

  2. Sounds like you are calling for censorship to me. Who is going to decide which stories are acceptable, our dear leader Barry? If you are that worried I would carry a handgun.

    • I’m not saying it should be illegal. I’m saying reporters should be able to figure this out.

      • That is the problem, your non-newsworthy story is of interest to someone else and vice-versa. Who is ultimately to decide which is which, you, Rush or the gov’t?

        • Because even if it is interesting, I would hope that it’s clear to most people that the benefit they get from having that itch satisfied does not outweigh the pain and death that might be caused as a result. It’s a moral issue, and people are indeed capable of making moral judgments, even in the face of disagreement.

          • “I would hope that it’s clear to most people that the benefit they get from having that itch satisfied does not outweigh the pain and death that might be caused as a result.”

            No I don’t think it would be “clear” unless those folks share your morality, world view, etc. Frankly you sound a bit arrogant telling us that it is “clear” as if we are dolts that need to educated so that we can have the right viewpoint.

        • Doesn’t the right usually criticize the left for being moral relativists?

    • Sounds like she’s on the side of freedom of speech to me. Who is going to answer Rose’s actual argument, our dear militiaman Scott? If you are that worried I would buy my own printing press.

      • To be less snarky, the people who are going to decide are the same people who have usually decided in our system: the news networks, the newspapers, the advertisers, etc.

      • Yes, she is calling on the media or someone to decide that only certain stories are actually newsworthy based on her world view. Any reporting on any crime could lead to copy cats so therefore no crime story is newsworthy?

        • Where is she calling for censorship? Where is she asking news networks to only report on stories that only conform to her world view? Where is there anything about Obama? Seriously, it’s like you read a couple of lines and decided what it was about.

          • She is calling on reporters to only cover some stories.

            “Aren’t the consequences of such coverage outweighed by the benefits of reporting it? Must absolutely everything be reported? Can reporters never use their judgment?”

            When deciding what those reporters should cover they should use her judgment or something akin to it b/c her judgment given that it is “clear” what the right choice is.

            “I would hope that it’s clear to most people that the benefit they get from having that itch satisfied does not outweigh the pain and death that might be caused as a result.”

          • When deciding what those reporters should cover they should use her judgment or something akin to it b/c her judgment given that it is “clear” what the right choice is.

            [bold added by me]

            In other words, she wants reporters to use judgment, which they already do. She has some guidelines that she suggests the reporters follow: that maybe it’s not best to report in a way that might glorify mass murder and inspire copycats. She emphatically states in her original post that reporters have the right to make up their own minds. She repeats that point in her response to you.

            In other words, it’s not censorship she’s advocating.

            Nice try, however. If you were my student, I’d make sure you get a passing grade. After all, you use quotes from the text, and your grammar is good. In my book, that’s worth at least a C-.

          • PC:

            Except you ignore that part where she asks, “Must absolutely everything be reported?” Which “clearly” indicates that some things shouldn’t be reported or don’t need to be reported. Any report on any crime could theoretically inspire a copy cat so who is to decide which ones are worthy and what is the proper approach to take?

          • Most things aren’t reported, or are underreported well out of proportion to their actual importance.

            I don’t think asking news reporters to align their categories is outside the bounds of civil discourse.

            Of course, I’m the one who thinks the nightly news should begin with, “Today, 306,786,942 people were not murdered, and 42 were. However, about 1500 died of a heart attack.” or something of that sort.

          • Deciding coverage levels would be a collective action problem. Though folks love using the phrase “the media is”, but it’s “the media are”.
            Who is going to tell which outlets are covering what – how do we decide that something can get on the radio but not TV so we avoid overdoing it?

          • And Patrick, I would TOTALLY watch that news report!

        • …. yeah, because when a large company makes someone disappear using trained assassins, this is something your neighbor is gonna do next!

        • “Today, this reporter drove to work. He fiddled around the radio, and didn’t hear a song he liked. He wished he brought his iPod, but he left it on the kitchen table. Or maybe it was in the living room. People walked by on the street. One woman tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, but recovered herself before falling. A bug landed on the windshield when stopped at a red light, but flew away just as the car started up again.”

          Of course reporters only cover some stories, and only some are newsworthy. I think that’s a well-established part of a reporter’s job. Many (though certainly not all) journalists also see themselves as performing a public good. Many (though certainly not all) see the exposure of, say, corruption to be a good. My suggestion is that refraining from stories can also be a good.

          I also don’t think there’s anything all that strange about a worldview where it’s worse when a school shooting occurs than when it doesn’t. I really do think that’s a view most people share.

          You will note that I did not say they should refrain from all crime stories. Certain ones lend themselves to copycats more than others. I also said this could be an important local story. I question its value as a national story.

          If you run such a story, you will give people a bit of information that briefly satisfies people’s interest in human nature. You might also encourage another such crime. If I had to choose between world A, where I received information about a school shooting and another one occurred, and world B, where I received no information about a school shooting and no subsequent one occurred – I would choose B. I think to choose A you would have a very shall we say uncommon view of the value of human life.

  3. I’m with you on reporters having discretion, but I’m doubtful that what you’re asking for is possible. Today’s communication technology allows “news” to go viral without reporters.

  4. Again, one of the ways I consider myself more in line with the political right than the political left is that I am a moral realist and I think there are true moral propositions (I don’t usually state them in harms and benefits, but that’s neither here nor there). I am honestly totally taken aback by a right-winger informing me I am insufficiently relativist.

    • It’s Scott. Don’t worry about it. He makes Koz look balanced and moderate.

  5. I remember a situation where just such a thing was done.
    There had been several suicide pacts, each involving multiple teen suicides; back in the early 80’s I believe it was.
    It became clear that at least one had been a copycat type of stunt, and there was a call for the news media to no longer report on these.
    And that’s what happened.

  6. It’s a collective action problem. If nobody covers the story, then there’s a strong incentive for one source to break the embargo and cover it, since they’ll get a bunch of sales.

    This means that it’s essentially a given that the story will get out. And if the story’s going to get out anyway, each outlet reasons, then we might as well make some money off it.

    Ultimately, the problem is the consumers. This is what they want to read. If they didn’t, then it wouldn’t sell papers.

  7. Perhaps the solution here is to subject the people who commit these crimes to public humiliation. In life if possible, in death if necessary. Dig up some dirt on them, publish all the most embarrassing stuff, and set the 4chan kids loose on it. Make it clear to potential copycats that their legacy will be one of mockery, not of fear.

    • Yeah, there is sort of a prisoner’s dilemma. Shaming the news outlet might be another way to go.

  8. Oddly enough, the hospital where I used to work got shot up last week. Someone died, and a lot of people got injured.

    Take note, folks: we had about ten police forces at the scene within about ten minutes. Still got some police officers shot up, though.

      • because it was right beside the Other Hospital, there were also unarmed doctors and nurses running in to help with the aftermath.

        In a lot of ways, it takes more bravery to come in unarmed than armed.

  9. The NYT had a story today about a MD student threatening to kill folks to make news. Too bad those NYT journalists are so irresponsible. Let the copy cat count down clock begin.

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