7 tips for covering the Colorado theater shooting

Disasters like the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., leave many victims. Journalists have a responsibility to cover this unfolding story without adding to the public’s fears.

Besides the dead and wounded, Warner Brothers and theater owners have hundreds of millions of dollars hanging in the balance. Will the shooting frighten others from going to the movies on the debut weekend; will it attract a following of the curious? What should the reaction be from theater owners? This movie is likely to be forever linked to this act of violence, as the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" is linked to Charles Manson.

In 1984, McDonald's demolished the restaurant where a mass shooting occurred. Columbine High School became forever known as “Columbine,” shorthand for the shooting there. The Arizona shopping center where Gabrielle Giffords was shot closed for a time (one book about the shooting was titled  “A Safeway in Arizona”). Virginia Tech is forever associated with the shooting attack there.

What Should Journalists Do?

Avoid shorthand. Don’t use a location to describe an act. Aurora is a place, not an act. The phrase “Aurora” shooting unfairly harms the community that is grieving.

Avoid simplicity. There will be an inevitable rush to blame movies, music, video games and who knows what else. No movie explains why people commit mass murder.

Avoid stereotypes. Mass killers don’t just “snap.” The Secret Service has studied this issue in depth, as it pertains to school shooters, and has come to know that such killers leave a long trail of clues as they plan their actions. They do not fit a profile of loner, loser or any other such easy-to-explain personality.

In a 2007 PBS interview, Dr. Stanton Samenow,  author of "Inside the Criminal Mind," described the motivations and personality profiles of mass killers:

“This is a person who not only wants to be in inner control, but he tries to control other people.

"These are people who are very difficult in interpersonal relationships, although to others they may appear accomplished, they may appear talented. And these are people who do not announce their intentions usually in advance. Sure, after the fact, you may be able to find certain features, but these are people who think in extremes. They're number one or they're nothing. And any little detail of life that doesn't go their way, it's like sticking a pin in the balloon. Their whole self-image is on the line.”

In a story prying into the mind of a mass killer, Time reported:

"Snapping is a misnomer," says Dr. Michael Welner, associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine."These people plan to carry out a mass killing without any indication of when they will do it. Instead of snapping, imagine a cage that someone has the capacity to unhinge. They simply decide that today is the day."

Avoid easy solutions. Inevitably somebody will start calling for increased theater security. How long will it be before we start talking about putting airport-like screeners in theaters where people are vulnerable, sitting in a dark place with people they do not know? The pro- and anti-gun lobbies will speak up for their causes.

Keep this in context. 1.23 BILLION movie tickets were sold in North America in 2011. The FBI says mass murder is a rare crime. Less than 1 percent of all homicides involve five or more victims -- a rate that has not changed in decades.

Avoid glorifying the shooter. This was a cold-blooded cowardly act. Lower the temperature of your coverage by avoiding adjectives like “terror,” which feed the motivations of those who would love to imagine themselves doing something similar. Stick to the facts, let the emotions come from the people you interview. There is no need for hyperventilated headlines and breathless copy. The story is tough enough.

What gets crowded out? This story deserves coverage. And when stories like this develop, other things get less attention. Syria is in a civil war, America faces an election, and we still have soldiers in harm’s way in Afghanistan. Try not to ignore other important stories that need our attention.

Related: How news spread of Colorado theater shootingJessica Ghawi, ‘aspiring sportscaster,’ dies in Aurora shootingABC News speculates theater shooter James Holmes linked to Tea PartyReddit covers the Colorado movie theater shooting

How to: 6 ways journalists can cope when covering traumatic stories like the Colorado theater shooting

  • Profile picture for user atompkins

    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon