To Stop Mass Shootings Like the One in Las Vegas Maybe We Need to Stop Morbid Rubbernecking as a National Pastime


A police roadblock on the Las Vegas Strip early Monday morning, Oct. 2, 2017, after a gunman at a hotel rained a rapid-fire barrage on a huge outdoor concert festival nearby. The gunman Ð identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock Ð killed at least 50 people, and wounded hundreds of others, officials said. (Isaac Brekken/The New York Times)

We all woke up this morning to awful news from Las Vegas.

A man, for reasons unknown at this point, opened fire on a country music festival wounding hundreds and killing dozens. It’s being reported by some as the most deadly mass shooting in American history. I don’t know how accurate that is, but suffice it to say that the carnage is awful.

Yet all too familiar. Mass shootings and the intense coverage of them by the media have become routine. Why do they keep happening?

There is no connecting ideology between them. Dylan Root is a racist. James Hodgkinson was a left winger out to assassinate Republicans.  Omar Mateen was motivated by Islamic extremism. Adam Lanza and James Holmes had severe mental illness as a driving factor in their crimes.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Maybe something would if we stopped sensationalizing these stories, but asking the nation and even the world to forgo the opportunity to collectively rubberneck a gruesome crime is probably too tall an order.[/mks_pullquote]

Why have such different people, with such a variety of motivations, chosen to commit mass shootings?

The way these incidents are reported may be a serious factor.

In 2009, while commenting on a shooting in Germany, Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz urged the press to alter the way they cover mass shootings. “We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring,” he said. “Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”

Just to be clear, those comments are eight years old now. Has anything changed? Has the press heeded this advice?

Because already with this situation in Las Vegas we’re seeing all the usual types of coverage. The body count is the headline. There is an intense hunt for details about the killer, with photos of him beginning to surface.

Plus there’s an element Dietz didn’t mention, which is the press expectation for political leaders and celebrities to weigh in via social media and other platforms. All morning I’ve heard reporters talking about what President Donald Trump and other politicians have posted on social media about this incident.

As if any of that really matters. Except maybe to potential copycats who would love the idea of getting the President himself to address their crimes.

Every time something like this happens we get a short period of shock, and then we all start talking about the same things. Gun control. Mental health policy.

Nothing ever changes.

Maybe something would change if we stopped sensationalizing these stories, but asking the nation and even the world to forgo the opportunity to collectively rubberneck a gruesome crime is probably too tall an order. For better or worse morbid curiosity represents a big market, and the media is going to serve it.