Media focus attention on killer rather than victim

by Caitlin Donovan – Staff Writer – [email protected]
Last month, there was some hubbub about how movie star Morgan Freeman supposedly blamed the media for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The quote, which circulated via Facebook and Twitter on Dec. 15, read, “Turn on the news and see how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single ‘victim’ of Columbine?”  Of course, it turned out this quote was a prank played on the gullible public, and not an actual quote from Freeman himself.  A representative of Freeman denied he made the statement to the Huffington Post in an article published on Dec. 17.
But this was not the first time such on argument has been made. Robert Ebert, an acclaimed film critic, made a similar one during his 2003 review of Elephant, referencing an experience he had being interviewed by a reporter after Columbine. When the reporter asked him if he thought violence in movies influenced school shootings, his response was, “Events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of ‘explaining’ them.”
He hypothesized that a potential killer watching the news might think, “If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they should not have messed with me.” The reporter never aired Ebert’s response. Ebert wrote that the program “found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.”
That is not to say the media should stop reporting school shootings or censor itself. The way violence is reported is not the only factor in school shootings, and the public’s right to know, as well as the media’s right to report, is protected by the Constitution. But one has to wonder if Freeman’s fake quote had a point. Can we remember the names of any of the victims of these tragedies like we remember the names of the killers? Should the media attention not be on them?
After all, stunning acts of heroism are also performed during these incidents. Victoria Soto died defending her students and the town of Newtown, Conn., is going to name a school after her. Alex Teves died shielding his girlfriend during the Dark Knight shooting. In fact, Teves’ father was reported as saying the media focused far too much on the shooter. “It’s awful and it’s senseless,” he said to Anderson Cooper on CNN. “So someone took a gun and shot a 6-year-old girl. Why are we talking about that person?”
A lot of media focus on the killer is indeed in the vein of trying to understand why someone would do such a thing, and prevent it from happening again. But can anyone truly understand? Rather than focus on the individual, maybe it is time to focus on making very real changes to our culture. And if the news media is going to talk about violence being glorified, it may be helpful if they looked at themselves before looking at video games and movies. Can we stop being a culture fascinated by killing? Maybe the first step is to stop being fascinated by real life killers to the point where we make them famous.
On Dec. 15, The Observer published an article entirely devoted to the Sandy Hook killer, titled, “Adam Lanza: the quiet friendless boy whom no one knew.” The title of the article sounds almost sympathetic. In fact, with such a title, one would think the piece was a tribute to one of the victims, but instead it is a piece dissecting the killer’s background. Exposing that the killer was lonely is not saying anything new. It certainly is not going to stop quiet friendless kids from existing, though it might make life harder for them.
The story of the unassuming white boy no one ever noticed turning out to be the killer is so engrained into the public consciousness at this point that one has to wonder why it should be repeated so often.  It is entirely possible that both the quote falsely attributed to Freeman and Ebert’s argument are not so off the mark.  It is possible at this point that the killers are familiar with these narratives and know how their legacy will endure if they take some public, violent actions. These killers might very well be thinking about how their names will be remembered over the names of the people they murdered. No longer are these killers “a” quiet friendless boy, the media will ensure they become “the” quiet friendless boy, and the media will also ensure that their victims remain nameless and faceless.