Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Media martyrdom plagues shootings

I can now
pinpoint the precise moment when I lost faith in mankind. It was last
Wednesday, when an 18-year-old opened fire at a high school in southern
Finland, killing eight people before turning the gun on himself.  

It wasn't the event itself, but its location that was so shocking. Nothing bad
ever happens in Finland! 

Or so we thought.


The rampage in the Nordic land comes on the heels of a recent surge in school
shootings here in the United States. These tragedies have resurrected
post-Columbine debates digging at the same basic question: How do these things
happen? Once again, the finger is pointed in all different directions. Gun
control is to blame. Or our violent pop culture. Or a lack of admirable role
models. Or our poor societal values. 

The actions of Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the Finnish gunman, may have given some of
these debates perspective. The shooting took place in a society renowned for
being overwhelmingly nonviolent. It was only the second school shooting in the
history of a country that boasts the highest rate of gun ownership and the
laxest gun laws in Europe. 

But the most disturbing element of last week's massacre was not the ease with
which the shooter obtained a firearm or the demonic lyrics of the bands he
listened to. The day before the tragedy, Mr. Auvinen posted graphic warnings of
the impending bloodbath on the popular video-sharing site YouTube. Although the
clips were removed shortly after the shooting, media outlets around the globe
jumped on their content, quickly transcribing the details of Mr. Auvinen's
chilling manifesto for the public.  

This reflected a common characteristic of these incidents: The killers seek
some sort of posthumous notoriety, and the media is more than willing to give
it to them. Bloodlust and vengeance are not the only motivating factors behind
a shooting; perpetrators often aspire to be martyred for their perceived causes
and perish in a glorious blaze of gunfire. If nothing else, it promises that
their pictures will adorn the front pages of national newspapers the following
day. With the press corps driven by their traditional motto "if it bleeds, it
leads," prophecy tends to become reality. 

"Martyr by media" reached a new low last April, when in between massacring 32
people at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho sent a multimedia package of photographs
and videos to NBC News teeming with unmet grievances against those he claimed
had wronged him. And NBC — no doubt lured by potential ratings — gave the mass
murderer his dying wish and broadcast his delusional ramblings to the world.

Of course, NBC was not the only culprit. National newspapers and cable networks
across the country overflowed with coverage. But few stories focused on victims
and heroes, opting instead to analyze and reanalyze every detail of the
killer's life. I wasn't even in the country at the time, and I still couldn't
log on to a U.S. news site without confronting Mr. Cho's sneering picture.

Don't get me wrong — school shootings demand investigations into the
perpetrator's background and attempts to answer the "why did he do it?"
question. But that doesn't mean that such cold-blooded killers deserve the blanket
media coverage they are so willingly afforded. After shooting up Columbine High
School in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made it abundantly clear that
gunning down classmates can propel someone to instant fame. Even today, their
names get more Google hits than many members of Congress. 

It's no wonder, then, that in certain cases excessive media coverage of these
massacres has helped inspire others to pursue similar goals through similar
means. In his long-winded manifesto, Mr. Cho referenced the Columbine killers, praising
"martyrs like Eric and Dylan." Just last Friday, two teenagers were arrested in
Sweden for plotting to shoot their school's headmaster — claiming to be motivated
by Mr. Auvinen's rampage in Finland just days earlier. 

When school shootings occur, the first questions people ask relate to the
responsibility of parents, school administrators, teachers and policymakers.
But what about the media? Don't we have an obligation to society and to our
youth?  Why do publishers save
front-page space for fame-seekingmurderers who aren't worth the ink their mug
shots are printed with?  

Of course, most news outlets argue that they are just doing their job,
providing citizens with valuable and relevant information. They claim to
disseminate information on school shootings just as they would for other
notable events. Yet a man like Charles Roberts, the murderer of five Amish
schoolgirls in Pennsylvania, makes the cover of People magazine, while Nobel Prize winners
do not. If people want to use these shootings as evidence that something is
wrong with our society, they can start by looking at how they're covered.

Adam Lichtenheld ([email protected])
is a senior majoring in political science and African studies.

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Badger Herald

Your donation will support the student journalists of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Badger Herald

Comments (0)

All The Badger Herald Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *