Charlie Brooker on media coverage of mass shootings

Another piece of excellent analysis from Charlie Booker, in a 2009 installment of Newswipe, showing how the 24-hour news-cycle is part of the system that gives rise to mass shootings.

Charlie Brooker's Newswipe 25/03/09 (via Kottke)


  1. I love how the media is now reporting that the shooter has Asperger’s and that this may have been a factor in the killings. It’s funny because if the shooting had happened just a few weeks later then they wouldn’t be saying this, as asperger’s is no longer going to be considered a mental illness starting in early 2013. 

    1. I thought it was no longer going to be considered a separate mental illness, but part of the autism spectrum.

      1.  Correct.

        Maybe Alex is concerned with the political implications of giving low-spectrum disorders less visibility.

    2. Different subject..just wanted this up top..You really think that if this were to be local news only to prevent more murders, that someone in that area wouldn’t post it on youtube. It would get out no matter what

      1. You missed the point.  Brooker (via Dr Dietz) isn’t suggesting suppressing the story.  He’s talking about the way it is reported – sensationalising it and making the gunman a “nihilistic poster-boy” causes copycat crimes (he says – rather reasonably IMO), so by all means report it, but make it boring.  See also: the Roger Ebert extract below this story, for approximately the same POV in different terms.

  2. This seems to be a case of the news organizations watering and fertilizing the seeds for the next massacre. Whether intentional or not, the concept is undeniable, which makes them culpable the next time this happens, and each time after. We haven’t changed much since Roman times, public stonings and feeding Christians to lions has evolved into throwing children under the proverbial bus for the sake of theater.

  3. and if anyboy’s wondering, that was “part 1: ibm 1401 processing unit” from jóhann jóhannsson’s excellent album “ibm 1401, a user’s manual” playing in the background. early minimalist computer music juxtaposed with maximalist strings.

  4. I am sympathetic towards this argument — having seen a previous study or two about the link between TV and teen pregnancy, so there is likely a link between the media and actions of those watching it/wanting to be on it. But if this door is opened to “underplay” the shooting, though, what other societal improvements should the media be forced to abide to?  It’d open the lines to Dan Quayle-esque arguments that the media and TV should be restricted from certain things, since “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown… mocking the importance of fathers – by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘Lifestyle Choice'”.

    1.  I don’t think it should be forced. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect voluntary responsible practices that forsake high ratings.

      1. How do you expect this to play out? It only takes one station to ignore this honorable tenet which then gets all the eyeballs. Now that one station can air promos for other shows, giving them higher ratings in other time slots as well. That’s a chain reaction you don’t want to happen. And all it takes is one station. So none does the right thing.

        So it’s really the viewers’ fault, right? Stoopid sheeple lapping that shit up? Well yeah, except that’s just how we’re wired. We humans want to hear this stuff so we can be properly afraid. And back in the day, being afraid used to be a good thing because it meant less dying.

        TL;DR: Self regulation isn’t going to work if the incentives aren’t there. It’s a hard problem.

        1. Doesn’t this work for media coverage of rape crimes?  The victims’ names are not reported. So there’s a precedent to build upon.

          1. Per the Park Dietz quote from the original video, what’s to be built upon the current media practice of not reporting the names of rape victims, is to not report the name (or personal details) of mass murder perpetrators.

            Antinous, does this idea sound plausible in light of wildemar’s comment above? Your response seems to apply only if the witnesses on the scene know the shooter, and in any case the issue is not whether surviving witnesses on the scene know the identity of the shooter, but whether the shooter receives the social proof of personal celebration in the major media.

          2. It’s irrelevant whether or not the name shows up on the television news if it’s all over the internet. Attempting to suppress information doesn’t work. I thought that we had established that.

          3. Spent some time reading about calls for rape shield law reform. And about Kobe Bryant. It’s definitely established – thanks.

  5. Srsly.  Every time we have one of these EXTRAORDINARILY RARE mass shootings, I want to tear my hear out.  The media starts to furious jerk itself off because it is lazy.  It is really easy and cheap to just keep repeating facts about what happened 24/7 spliced in with some coverage by a reporter or two at the location.  It is the easiest and laziest news story you can do.  It costs almost nothing to produce or cover, and the police are going to do all the work for you, breathlessly releasing information every few hours.  It cost more to cover Lindsey Lohan’s crotch, because than you at least need to a pay a few scum bags to chase her around.

    Meanwhile, while saturating the shit on the coverage of this extraordinarily rare event they get to (much to their relief) ignore harder and more complex stories.  Covering the Syrian civil war is freaking hard and expensive.  Covering the political changes in Mexico is hard and confusing for an American audience.  Hell, simply covering the European debt crisis is hard. In all of those cases, you need translators.  You need to some how concisely explain a very complex topic that has multiple parties involved.  If you want any worthwhile coverage you need someone on the ground in those areas doing local work.  Sure, politics in Mexico, the conflict in Syria, and the state of politics and finance in Europe are roughly a orders of magnitude more important than more likely to effect you than a shooting in shooting in Connecticut, but those are hard, and our lazy media hates hard.  No, lets go back to 24/7 coverage of a single shooting that is going to effect absolutely no one that wasn’t local to it.

    Bah. The media is worthless.  Thank god for Google News.  It gathers up all of that worthless shit breathless coverage, stuffs it into one category, and leaves the rest of my stream empty of it.

    1. Extraordinarily rare? A guy shot three people in an Alabama hospital this morning. Sandy Hook yesterday. Clackamas Town Center on Tuesday. Aurora, CO was only six months ago. Giffords in 2011. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

      There are lots of valid criticisms to be made about US ‘news’ orgs, but mass shootings in the US aren’t ‘extraordinarily rare’. A Middle Eastern dictatorship being overthrown is extraordinarily rare. A once-in-a-century European financial crisis is extraordinarily rare. Mass shootings in the US are at most an annual event. Complaining about their regularity rather than their rarity is closer to the truth. Seen one crazy gunman killing a bunch of people, seen ’em all, amirite?

      1. Let me rephrase.  The chance that a mass shooting is going to hurt you or someone you know is extremely unlikely.  You are far more likely to choke to death on food.  The chance that a European debt crisis or a destabilization in Syria is going to have an effect upon you is extremely likely.  European economic turmoil will almost certainly have a profound upon American economics, and the US has a nasty habit of getting into wars in the Middle East and a thirst for oil that makes anything happening there of interest, even if you don’t give two shits about mass human suffering.

        A lone gunman on the other hand isn’t going to effect you.  I can say with 99.999% certainty, that you are not going to die to a crazy mass shooter.  You could have a mass shooter whack 20 people once a month you still would be more likely to die by slipping and falling in your shower.  Mass shootings are not a threat to you. That are not a danger to  you.  They are not a significant source of human misery when compared to the other things that bring about human misery.  It is a non story for anyone doesn’t live in and around that time or heave family and friends in and around that town.

        I’ll tell you the appeal of a mass shooting and what makes the media eat it up.  It is appealing because there is a story that you can put yourself in.  It is dramatic.  You can tell a tale.  10,000 brown people dead in Syria?  Eh, they are brown people in Syria.  European debt crisis?  What kind of story is that?  Hell, simply worrying about how Americans are eating themselves to death in the millions, while should horrify you in terms of health care costs if not your life and the life of your friends and family, isn’t a story worth telling.  

        Some dude gunning down a bunch of kids… well that is riveting   We get to share in mutual horror and disgust as the story unfolds and come together in shared mutual feelings!  Sure, it has absolutely zero impact upon you and you stand zero chance of having it impact you, but what a tale!  The fact that it costs pennies and is brain dead easy for the media to cover is just icing to the cake.

      2. The leading cause of violent death in the US is suicide.  Thus, you are more likely to KILL YOURSELF than to be killed by someone else.  And in those instances where one is killed by someone else, in only a microscopic percentage of cases would one be killed in a mass shooting.  So, casualties from mass shootings are EXTRAORDINARILY RARE in comparison with suicides and individual homicides which are not covered in the brain-dead, sensationalist national media who in their self-serving, monetarily motivated efforts inspire other maniacs to infamy by attributing far more attention to a tragic, but statistically rare event than it desires.

        Speaking precisely about this in one of the best sci-fi films ever made:

        “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” — Klaatu, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

        at which point he was cut off by the radio announcer…

  6. Let’s follow the implications here: Our best science tells the newscasters that if they keep doing things this way, there will be further deaths. And they keep doing things that way. Conclusion- the news is not in the least concerned with public safety. More killings means more ratings and more ad revenue.

    Remind me, what’s so great about capitalism again?

    1. Some capitalists acting like assholes doesn’t mean that most capitalists are assholes or that capitalism doesn’t help people in certain ways.

      Same way that some socialists acting like assholes doesn’t mean that most socialists are assholes or that socialism doesn’t help people in certain ways.

        1. I wasn’t suggesting that socialist assholes use socialism to do bad things in the same ways that capitalist assholes use capitalism to do bad things.

          I was responding to the suggestion that there’s nothing good about capitalism because one group of opportunistic assholes have exploited one aspect of it to perpetuate a problem.

          If one had to, I suppose one could point out that socialist or state-run media perpetuate certain problems when they ignore the ones caused or exacerbated by the state.  When that happens, it’s not a reason to suggest that there’s nothing good about socialism, just that, in that circumstance, some assholes are using socialism to do things that aren’t good.

        2. Are you serious?  You really can’t think of an example of state owned media doing something horrible.  Seriously?

        3. I think the term you are looking for is “non-profit media” or alternatively “public broadcasting”. Then again, I suppose the UK newspaper The Guardian was originally supposed to be a “socialist media”, in that the employees of the company were intended to be the owners.

      1. It’s not a question of some individuals behaving badly- no one is arguing that it’s a good thing for someone to act out with a firearm. it’s the perverse incentives that capitalism creates, for profit whenever someone does act out.

         Since it’s the press that’s taking advantage of this perverse incentive, no outside force will be able to act on them without someone invoking the 1st Amendment. There’s no way to enforce responsible reporting.

        1. We agree that no one is arguing that it’s a good thing for someone to act out with a firearm. We agree that there’s no way to enforce responsible reporting.  (And thank goodness, otherwise the same folks who are prosecuting more government whistleblowers than ever before would get to decide what “responsible reporting” is.)

          But capitalism doesn’t create more perverse incentives than socialism does.  Both systems have the potential to be abused because of the kinds of power they offer.  At the same time, both systems have proved beneficial to countless numbers of people.  And neither system deserves to be wholly condemned because of the fact that there are selfish people who are motivated to behave badly because of the particular rewards offered by each.

      2.  capitalism is inherently amoral, not immoral mind you, amoral. there is no moral judgement involved in capitalism. capitalists can do good things, or bad things. there is nothing to drive capitalists to do good things but there is also nothing to stop them from doing bad things.
        capitalism is inherently selfish as it is driven entirely by the self interest of the capitalist.
        given a selfish, amoral system you have to expect things like this (the free market has deemed that this self destructive behaviour is very profitable.)

        socialism by contrast has an inherent morality (that which is best for society, and that government’s role is to provide for the well being of society and to protect the weak from the strong) and is inherently altruistic (as it’s goal is the protection of one’s fellow man) as we know from evolution, self interest can lead to altruism so a capitalist can be altruistic, but only if altruism is the best strategy.

        they both have their strengths and their weaknesses (capitalism tends towards a non-free market as certain parties amass greater and greater power, buy up resources such as means of production or real estate or utilities and push out the smaller companies til only a few large companies exist and competition is no more, also as mentioned above capitalism has no means to do things for the greater good, if they are not sufficiently profitable…or worse unprofitable.)

        socialism on the other had tends to lead to complacency and unproductivity, without the spur of poverty or the carrot of wealth many will just do what they WANT to do rather than what NEEDS done.

        this is why america is not capitalist nor socialist but a mix of both, and we are still working on the ratio.

        1. I would disagree that capitalism is inherently amoral.  If it was, then good numbers of capitalists would believe in slavery.  Capitalism, at its core, is about the voluntary exchange of goods and services.

          And while I agree that socialism has an inherent morality, so do religions.  Simply having a morality doesn’t imply a natural positive outcome.  And I think socialism isn’t so much about “protecting the weak from the strong” as it is about preventing people from becoming strong enough to prey on others or weak enough to be prey.I do agree with your description of both systems’ weaknesses, and your last sentence.

          1.  actually it was government interference in the free market that ended slavery, left on it’s own many capitalists WOULD embrace slavery…it required government regulating the market for the social good…or socialism…to end slavery. and even after that the market tended toward something very close to slavery in the later 1800’s (when certain individuals controlled all means of production and land they controlled employment and could pay their employees whatever they wanted, and what they wanted was next to nothing, and they didn’t give any care to their employees health and well-being then the government stepped in and regulated the market for the social good.

          2. Using your reasoning, I could take the worst abuses of communist states to argue that socialism advocates for slavery, or that socialism is willing to commit mass murder on a genocidal scale, both  “for the social good.”  But that would be silly.  

            No mainstream, modern socialists support the barbaric abuses of past regimes which excused their atrocities by claiming to have acted “for the social good.”  Just as no mainstream, modern free-market advocates support the slave holding and sweat shop running of business men who excused their atrocities by claiming to have acted in the interest of improving the economy.

            Obviously there is disagreement among ideologues as to which historic occurrences were justified, but both systems have propagated negative behavior and negative results. 

            All I’m saying is that bad socialists and bad capitalists doing bad things under their respective systems have hurt a lot of people, and good socialists and good capitalists have helped a lot of people under their respective systems in different ways.

            This is not a radical assertion.

  7. Inceptrospection?
    Yo dawg, I herd you like introspective media coverage, so I put my own introspective coverage in the comment section of your introspective media coverage about introspective media coverage about introspective media coverage so you can be introspective about the introspection about the introspection that you’re being introspective about.

  8. Red herring. Sure, there’s an element of rubbernecking here, but that’s what people do as anyone who has ever been  in a traffic jam certainly understands. Fashionable here I guess to demonize the great unwashed and their newsviewing habits, but 99.9999% of them *still* understand the difference between right and wrong. 

    Ironic that a site which musters such  frequent outrage against those who would cast overly wide nets to inhibit filesharers would recomend casting a much wider net to snag a much much smaller element. 

    Two options here:  eliminate mental illness or eliminate easy access to guns.  Everything else obfuscates the issue.

    1. So utter moral bankruptcy across the news media spectrum isn’t part of the issue?  Because it certainly seems like it is from here.  And to Charlie Brooker, and to Roger Ebert, and to Morgan Freeman if the comment below is accurate.

      1. I don’t really want the media to be “moral”. “Moral” media spent centuries pretending that LGBT people didn’t exist, etc. I would appreciate it if the media would weight coverage based on some reasonable appraisal of significance, whether local or international.

      2. “Utter moral bankruptcy.”  That’s an awfully wide brush you’re using.

        Listen:  the media may be morally lacking, or not.  It’s not really my issue.  What I am  saying is that in the interests of avoiding the eyes of a very small mentally ill subset, you (read:  the government) should not, cannot, dictate to the press what it can or cannot report, or how.

        Unity minus the infinitessimal percentage can handle these news reports just fine, the rabble you demonize by satisfying their voyeuristic urge, or the rest of us elite enlightened folk simply by ignoring them. 

        The censor is not your friend, nor will he ever be.

        I’ll say it again, just so there is no doubt of my position:  there are two problems here, and, whatever its many failings, one of them is not the media.

        1. The censor is not my friend, nor will he ever be.  The censor would be a solution worse than the problem.  That doesn’t mean there’s no problem.

          The US media long since passed the point of active encouragement and collaboration in mass shootings.  When you say “it’s not really my issue” – it really should be.  Because that same ethical blindness is the reason the media encourages many other ugly, evil things.

    2. This is not entirely a red herring.  Well, the focus on the media specifically is, but not the idea that glorifying the killer is part of the problem.  Just listen to the psychologist in the video.

      In at least some news media regions it’s now common practice not to show live car chases and some sports have a policy of never showing the people streaking naked through stadiums. 

      Part of this problem could be solved by simply making a policy that the name of the killer(s) cannot be presented for some period of time, preferably until they’ve been convicted of the crime in court, but I doubt the news media would go for it.  This would limit the exposure to the public and by the time the name was revealed people will have had time to move past the real story: the people that were hurt in the events.

      This will also help partly address one of the two problems you mentioned at the end.  As the psychologist mentioned in the video, some of the killers want to be famous.  Remove the fame, and they may not be as motivated to kill.

      As for guns, that one will never happen now that we’re on the verge of being able to print our own weapons with 3d printers.  

  9. Just feel like pointing out that the Oslo/Utøya terrorist spent a small fortune on plastic surgery to get what he felt was a more photogenic nose and had been discussing with his mother whether to shell out another ca $2000 on dental work to get more attractive teeth.
    This was during the planning stages of the attack as he anticipated how media would become saturated with images of him.

    1.  it should also be pointed out that he didn’t get the coverage he had been expecting (at least not from norwegian media). apart from a few “standardized” shots, and (non-vocal) coverage from the courtroom, he got very little press over here. the trial was covered generously, yes, but HE got very little input. new teeth or not.

  10. so what would happen if some crazy went on a spree in a newsroom? and the coverage triggered another studio spree? would they then consider the ratio of lives/ratings and conclude it was still worth it? (and i’m just jumping on the bandwagon here, of course, but still a thought worth having, i guess)

    1. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t actually have an office in the newsroom. Why would he be concerned about the lives of his employees if their sacrifice could earn him more latinum?

  11. The media lives to cover Obama’s misdeeds. Obama, with the help of the republicans and democrats, cut funding for locked mental health facilities all over America. They cut special ed teaching budgets. They cut social service worker budgets. They shipped out the jobs so that working parents could no longer afford medical coverage, including psychiatric services, for themselves and kids. They cut medicare benefits so that the mentally ill could no longer get help.
    This is going to keep happening. The media zombies will feed on the glory of these situations until the next mass-murdering shooter aims for the people working in the media.

  12. People get the media they ask for. If one network decides not to show the killer’s face, another one will. And people will watch that network. There are downsides to a media based on capitalism.

  13. Charlie Brooker is fantastic! All of his “wipe” shows are worth watching again and again and again… (and “how tv ruined your life”, ofc) Incidentally, anyone knows if there’s going to be a “2012 wipe”?

  14. This is supposedly from Morgan Freeman saying the same thing:

    “You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why.

    It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.

    CNN’s article says that if the body count “holds up”, this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell. So congratulations­, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.

    You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem.”

  15. As I basically said earlier when spacedoggy put up the video:

    There are valid, possibly life-saving instructions in that video, but the corporatist media won’t follow any of those ideas unless there’s more money in it for them (which there isn’t).

    We need grassroots, societal change that takes over these media institutions and instead installs long-term thinking, humanity and ethical motivations that trump the all-mighty dollar.

    Until then, the old, stale, evil, destructive status quo continues on and on and on…

  16. From this point forward can we make a point of refusing to name the shooters in these monstrous events.  From now on when I talk about the events of Columbine I will refer to the killers as ‘psycho douchebags;. 

    I am ashamed to say I don’t know the names of a single one of the victims of any of these shootings (aside from that Congressperson).  But I know many of the names of psycho douchebags.  And that sucks.  Let’s stop making them famous, and just start calling them psycho douchebags.  Over and over.  

  17. Isn’t reporting on reporting-as-the-problem kind of like replying-all to a mistaken large-distribution reply-all to ask to be taken off the distribution list? 

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