Shootings and the media

By Sam Inglot
Anthony Kolenic

MSU researcher says violent shooters thrive on widespread media coverage — and the media is partly to blame for not treating all violence equally

Wednesday, Dec. 26 — School shootings are as old as the United States of America, but the way we look at them has changed in the past few decades, which is like fuel for the perpetrators, says a Michigan State University researcher. 

Anthony Kolenic, an MSU anthropology professor specializing in peace and justice studies, says the widespread media attention that follows mass shootings is often what the assailants are seeking. Kolenic’s research is focused on mass shootings and the use of the media by perpetrators.

“We need to stop thinking about (the shooter’s) relationship with popular culture as causal and think of it instead as performance,” Kolenic said. “When you look at the large amount of media that these perpetrators create — not that they just take in but create — you see that they’re recreating certain elements … because it carries social capital. They’re repeating what’s recognizable.

“They can count on our big reaction. It doesn’t matter — live or die — they know that this is what’s going to happen,” Kolenic said.

School shootings in the U.S. date back to the 18th century. Kolenic said the number of school shootings depends on who’s counting and how they’re counting, but he puts the number at over 80. Given the number of schools in the country and the frequency at which they occur, Kolenic says they are “staggeringly uncommon.”

“If we look at the history of school shootings (in the U.S.), the earliest one that I can find a record of was in 1795,” Kolenic said. “These have been going on for well over 200 years and they’ve really changed since the 1970’s and the alignment of violence as a way to get media attention.”

The Dec. 14 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. captured the nation’s attention after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults. It’s not the first time an incident like this has occurred at an elementary school: A shooting at an elementary school over 30 years ago in San Diego was the birthplace of the modern day school shooter, Kolenic said.

“The contemporary idea of a school shooter is born in 1979 with a 16-year-old, female shooter in Brenda Spencer,” Kolenic said. “When asked why she did it, she said she wanted ‘to do something big to get on TV.’”

Kolenic said mass shooters like Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, are carrying out a “performance” of a proven formula that will get them media attention.

The shooters’ performance — including their dress, the guns they used and manifestos they leave behind — results in media coverage well beyond the basic questions and answers of a story, Kolenic said: It leads to primetime, continuous coverage for weeks.

Kolenic said the debate about gun control and creating better mental health services are all part of the equation to try to prevent events like those at Newtown in the future.

However, until the media and the people consuming it start reacting and feeling the same about violence committed on street corners and abroad as they do about school shootings, the situation won’t change.

The media and policymakers give school shootings a “special place” in terms of violence, Kolenic said, which is part of the problem. He said until all violence is treated equally in the eyes of the media and policymakers, there will always be people who use this “special violence” as a way to get attention.

“These are large human issues that really can’t be answered through something like policy until we stop separating the kind of death that is systematic or expected from warfare or something else,” Kolenic said. “Until we stop treating these things as a genre or a (specific) way of violence, it will continue to be a way of violence. It has a special place because we give it a special place.”