On media and massacres


Aurora memorialA frenzied media and a disturbed angry lone assassin in search of massive attention have coalesced in a Colorado cinema like a perfect storm.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time unfortunately. The ghastly details of the tragic slayings in Colorado are now common knowledge. Yet many experts agree that dramatic, hysterical publicising of the perpetrator and his crime can feed the so called copycat compulsion.

So how do we reconcile the legitimate need to know, respond and inform with the potential for inciting further violence from other vulnerable, disturbed individuals 'out there'? Furthermore, with so much information instantly available on the internet, is any kind of containment and control possible?

Significantly the Aurora tragedy occurred almost upon the anniversary of the Breivik killings in Norway. Jonus Gahr Store, the Norwegian Minister of foreign affairs has written in The New York Times of remaining open and democratic about this event. Legal proceedings were in an open court.

Some have criticised this as possibly inciting more violence. But the approach was unique and seems to have been calming. There was genuine bipartisanship — the issue did not become a major political flag waving opportunity — and the Norwegian people have responded with reflection, honesty and open grief.

There has not been an emphasis on revenge. Instead the goal has been to reduce the likelihood of reprisals, by open grieving and unsensational reporting.

In sharp contrast the media and politicians have maintained a reactive rather than reflective response to the Aurora mass shooting. There has been a shrill focus on gun laws. The consensus has been, 'You can't have a genuine debate on gun reform in an election year'.

Media and lone protagonists who commit very public mass murder have traits in common. They seek to dramatise, enthrall, send a message, tell a story and to rise above the pack. Selling the news can cross the line that separates reporting and informing from the intent to seduce and shock.

The media's business model is not conducive to the straight factual, low-key reporting recommended by forensic Psychiatrist Park Dietz. Dietz recommends that reporting should remain localised to the community in which the event occurred, and that other news outlets should make its reporting as boring (yes, boring) as possible.

But the news media, like people such as the Aurora shooter James Holmes, are out to gain mass attention.

Dietz recommends that the horror of the event does not become part of a 24/7 news cycle, that body counts are not featured and that the perpetrator is not pictured and described as some kind of anti hero (i.e. evil genius).

So how can the media attain its goal of mass interest without itself engendering the next horrific news story?

Even so called 'factual' straight reporting can mislead if used to embellish a histrionic narrative

When Arlene Holmes was phone by journalist Mathew Mosk regarding the shootings in Aurora, she was said to be 'unsurprised', saying 'you've got the right person'. America's ABC News came out with guns blazing, running the headline: 'Aurora Suspect James Holmes Mother: "You have the Right Person".'

Holmes claims she was quoted out of context: 'I was awakened by a call from a reporter about 5:45 in the morning. I did not know anything about a shooting in Aurora at that time. He asked if I was Arlene Holmes and if my son was James Holmes who lives in Aurora, Colorado. I answered yes, you have the right person.'

One answer to the horror of Aurora may lie in a spirit of non opportunistic, deep engagement with the grief and tragedy by the public media and political leaders. Perhaps then it will be possible to comfort the bereaved including the family of the perpetrator.

This could lead us to have honest open discussion that includes how to best prevent further occurrences of tragedies such as the Aurora massacre.

Lyn BenderLyn Bender is a Melbourne based psychologist. 

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Aurora massacre, The Dark Knight Rises, gun control



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Existing comments

It is distressing to read Lyn's declaration that the Aurora cinema massacre is not the first one, nor "will it be the last, unfortunately". It is akin to the American gun lobby's guns-don't-kill-people-do myth, or the outrageously bizarre claim by some misguided US commentator that this act of deliberate, perfectly planned inhumanity is a type of "natural disaster". In 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre here in Australia PM John Howard acted, with full bipartisan suport, despite fierce opposition from his own voter-base, to enact significant national Australian gun-reform legislation. There has been no Port Arthur part 2, nor Martin Bryant the second since. To helplessly, fatalistically believe such atrocities as Aurora will be repeated and there's nothing anyone can do about it is a major part of the problem, and a great way to continue to endanger the lives of innocent people going about their daily business, surely?

Michelle Goldsmith | 30 July 2012  

This may be a very radical, overly-altruistic expectation, but would it be too much to ask Warner Brothers to stop screening the new Batman and just shelve it for a year or so while people grieve - thereby avoiding any incidental, even though unintended, publicity from this massacre?

AURELIUS | 30 July 2012  

My daughter is off to USA for a semester at a University there. Not in Colorado I hasten to add. She is a Batman fan and has a Joker T-Shirt from an earlier movie. I was helping her pack and I said to her 'I am not sure you should wear this for a while.' She said 'its only for sleeping in, not for wearing in public'. So I packed it. Was I over sensitive, probably, but on reflection I also thought there are millions who enjoy the Batman movies and they don't commit such crimes. If the Americans can't discuss gun control in an election year more fool them! When can they discuss them I ask! Such a religiously observant country too! Which bit of Thou shalt not kill do they not understand? Guns are the problem along with disturbed individuals who will continue to access them easily, not the fictional Batman and Joker.

Pearl Luxon | 04 August 2012  


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