Virginia TV Shootings Prove Media Obliges When Killers Seek Attention

Waking up to news of another tragic shooting, the “Cheers” theme has a way of playing in one’s head — specifically, that line about wanting to be in a place “where everybody knows your name.”

That place, in this context, is the media, which inevitably gives murderers their moment in the spotlight, now on a continuous cable loop.

Wednesday’s double homicide in Virginia involving a local TV crew, shockingly committed on live television, joins a list of such events too long to mention. Yet it happened to come on the day when James Holmes, the mass killer in the Colorado movie theater slayings, was sentenced for those crimes.

Through the years, much has been made of media, and especially television, in terms of their relationship with societal violence. Yet while that correlation is sometimes tenuous or exaggerated, there’s no denying the way deranged minds and political or religious extremists see the promise of media exposure as a goal or payoff for committing terrible acts. In this latest case, that included the alleged killer using social media, Twitter and Facebook, to actually broadcast the crimes.

Indeed, for terrorists, perpetrating violence in a random locale is virtually by definition motivated by the ripple effects it will cause through media channels, creating fear in the broader population. And if reports are accurate that the culprit in Virginia sent a 23-page document to ABC News, it could be just the latest in a series of “manifestos” in which killers seek to air grievances, mount a soapbox or justify their actions.

Obviously, such stories are newsworthy and can’t be ignored. But the furor surrounding each fresh outrage seldom allows for the necessary introspection about the media’s role in perpetuating this cycle, and whether any curbs could be imposed that might mitigate the allure, however sick that sounds, for those who think they can transform a gun into a megaphone.

While there has been admirable talk about exercising restraint in airing the violence that was captured on camera, that doesn’t address the more problematic and complicated matter of giving killers the 15 minutes of fame — or rather, notoriety — that many of them seek.

Admittedly, this creates a formidable challenge. In the wake of such events, the natural implication is to want to understand what happened, and why. That usually calls for a detailed examination of the shooter, although media outlets have become more sensitive about chronicling the stories of the victims as well.

Moreover, because we tend to process these stories through the prism of television and movies — a natural point of reference — the focus falls on the “character” who sets the action in motion. The main difference in our fictionalized version of these tales is that the story is frequently told from the perspective of the law-enforcement officials involved.

Completely depriving killers of the media oxygen they seek isn’t a realistic option. Yet as is so often true in these situations, it’s worth remembering and contemplating a routine by the late George Carlin, in which he delivered this mock headline: “A man has barricaded himself inside his house; however, he is not armed and nobody is paying any attention to him.”

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