Sunday, April 21, 2013

Media Sensationalism

**Note** - This blog post is not about Disney, or my happy fantastic existence in currently rainy Orlando!  Over the past semester I have been writing papers about media sensationalism for my english course.  In our final paper we are asked to make contributions to the conversation and this is part of mine. A public blog post about the topic.  I also wrote a letter to the Federal Communication Commission that oversees the media.  This post details some pretty harsh events that even I wouldn't want to read about except that I had to.  This is my official warning and advisement to skip this post if you don't want to read about school shootings, media sensationalization of murder trials, serial killers and the likes.  I'll be updating about some super exciting Disney happiness soon!!!! And it's almost my birthday! Woooo! ****

"You're going to pick a topic to write about the whole semester," my professor told us, "Ending in a 20 page paper that we'll work on throughout the term."  (She actually only said a 12 page paper, but somewhere in my mind it registered as 20 pages).

I had no idea what I could possibly write something persuasive about for that many pages.  I  finally came up with the idea of media sensationalism, based on a conversation my family had had many times about the media's portrayal of news.  I used to leave the room when my Mum put on the 5 o'clock news, because it always started with dead people.  I don't like dead people.  I don't like the thought that there are people out there who can actually murder someone, especially those who do it for sport.  Growing up on Vancouver Island we were always exposed to the Pickton Pig Farm murders - Robert Pickton murdered upwards of 26 women and scattered their bodies across his pig farm.  I hated this. I tried to block it out as much as possible.

In 1999 I was 12 years old when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up their high school as media rushed to the scene showing the tragedy live.  I couldn't believe there were people who would do this, and became very interested in who these boys were, who their victims were and how they get to the point that they felt this was the only way.  I became consumed with the media, consumed with the tragedy.

Looking back I don't know how I was so interested, or how I could stand it.  Maybe because it was so far removed from my small town it almost didn't feel real.  It was another thing found on the internet and on the television, half way between reality and fiction.  Michael Moore created a documentary centered around this event, and I remember perfectly where I was and who I was with when we watched the film 'Elephant' a fictionalized depiction of very similar events to the Columbine shooting.  Watching Elephant is when it all hit me.  The realism was devastating and  I turned off the news for years following.

The summer of 2011 I moved to Orlando for the summer semester at Rosen College.  Little did I know the phenomenon that would occur in town surrounding a mother who was on trial for killing her daughter.  Casey Anthony's trial coverage was on every single television channel.  It had hundreds of twitter accounts created around it, numerous Facebook groups and was deemed the social media trial of the century by Time magazine.  I talked to friends who literally called in to work to camp out and try to get one of the coveted seats inside the court room.  It sickened me.  I refused to watch television and got very upset when my stanley cup hockey games were proceeded and interrupted by coverage. Casey Anthony was everywhere.  3000 miles away, my parents in Canada knew all about her case! The public outcries for her punishment, her media-conviction of guilt, the way everything seemed to stand still waiting for the actual jury decision, and the insane outbursts that followed an astonishing not-guilty verdict.  While researching for my paper I learned that in the two months after Casey Anthony's trial started she was covered in more news reports than any candidate running for the Republican Presidential nomination.  Murder sells.  More media reports were dedicated to a single death in Orlando, Florida than to who could have been the President of the United States.  The only candidiate who got more media attention was current President Barack Obama.  This astonished me.  Whether or not I think Casey Anthony is guilty or not is irrelevant.  She got off, yet because of the media coverage Casey Anthony will never be able to live a normal life - the amount of public death threats to Casey Anthony, as well as her parents who went into hiding, and the jurors who found her not-guilty - no one involved will not be drastically changed forever due to the media frenzy that drew huge ratings.  The media, and in turn the public, treated the tragic event as sport, drawing spectators, setting up tents, providing 24/7 coverage and capitalizing on the death of a two year old girl.

Researching for this paper was rough.  As you can tell by every other post in my blog, I'm a pretty chipper, Disney loving, glass half full kind of girl.  Imagine sitting for hours on end reading over and over again about brutal murders, often numerous ones by the same person, and then the copycats that created the same crimes, or similar because they saw the others in the news.  In particular this article by Josh Clark and Laurie Dove "10 Notable Copycat Killers" was example after example about deaths copied from other murders seen in the media. Criminologists have long been aware of the potential for media to foster copycat killings.  The first example is Jack the Ripper in 1912, with similar crimes taking place shortly after his in the same fashion.  It just continues on from there.  Oliver Stone was sued once for murders that took place in the same fashion as in his film Natural Born Killers, where the murderers watched the film many times over, then went and committed the same crime.  The film ironically surrounds the idea of media overexposure of violence, and is loosely based itself on teenager spree killers in the late 1950s.   I cut this part out of my final paper, however it still left an uncomfortable feeling.

I finished my initial paper with a drained heart and a drained brain.  As the semester continued, and I had to research more, write more papers, I felt surrounded by the topic.  It was hard to go to the movie theatre without having the Colorado shooting come to mind.  It all became too close to home recently when a suicide at my university was almost a dormitory shooting.  As I received alerts on my phone that main campus was closed, more news was released that it was a death, then a suicide death, then a planned attack that wasn't followed through.  I watched as my boss fed off of every update, wanting, almost needing to know more and more.  He kept a countdown to the release of the 911 call, and read stories aloud about the person who died and their history.  Throughout the day there was a constant commentary.  The boy had pulled the fire alarm and allegedly was going to shoot students as they left their rooms due to the alarm.  His roommate met him in their living room and ran back to his own room to call 911 when the gun was pointed at him.  Writings and plans were found in the students room, as well as a large amount of ammunition, other guns and bombs.  A bomb was also found in the parking garage attached to the building. It was a tragic event, that could have ended up much worse.  But it was close to home, at my own university, and seeing it play out in front of my eyes, with people I knew, affected me.

While working on a project for another class I got frustrated and needed a break.  I thought I'd take an hour, put something cheerful and easy on in the background and work on something else for a little bit. I put Glee on as I thought it would be a good background, them singing happy little songs as I made to do lists.  It was a school shooting episode. I could not believe it.

Most recently the bombing of the Boston Marathon, and the following manhunt for the second suspect who ended up being found hidden in a boat.  My friend got a tattoo two days ago from noon until about 8:30pm, and it was the only thing on the television the entire time.  I understand this coverage, the entire city was on lockdown and there were SWAT teams going door to door with all transportation shutdown.  But the stories digging into the boys history, the probing anyone who knew them for information on who they were, what they were like - why?

This is a tragic event that ended in thousands of people's lives being changed forever.  3 deaths, over 150 serious injuries, at an event that should have been celebrating the extreme dedication and hard work put into training and completing the highly competitive Boston marathon.

It makes you question society.  Question humanity.  Question why we want to gather around the television or computer and know every single fact about someone who committed a heinous crime against the world. And the coverage doesn't stop.  If you google Adam Lanza right now, the boy who 5 months ago opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School, you get over 54 million hits in less than .23 of a second. And the latest story was published only 4 days ago.  And it's centered around the killer, not the school, not the victims - the one person involved who should be forgotten.

What if the media didn't cover the killers the way they do? What if instead of plastering Adam Lanza's face all over the internet, they broadcast about the incredible teachers who hid their students to save their lives? Or they just reported on the news of today.  If you look into it there are so many heroic stories of teachers, teacher's aides, and others in the school that day who saved the lives of others; by running through the halls and shouting warnings, by hiding them, by using their bodies as shields.

This quote by Robert Ebert really drives the point home:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

How do you sum it up better than that? It has been said that Adam Lanza saw the shooting at the shopping mall in Oregon earlier in the week in the media and it may have led him to follow through with his plans.
This article published in the aftermath of the shooting is just an example of the numerous examples of copycats.  Following the Sandy Hook School Shooting there were numerous arrests including an Indiana man who planned to light his wife on fire and shoot as many people as he could at Jane Ball Elementary.  He was arrested and 47 guns and rounds of ammunition worth over $100,000 were confiscated.  Another incident over the weekend involved a shooter opening fire at a clinic in Uruguay to imitate the Connecticut school shooting, according to the suspect’s police statement. The suspect fired three shots and was arrested on site, local media reported.  Initially, the 18-year-old shooter attended a secondary school in the western city of Paysandu, but chose to leave due to the small crowd on Saturday. After walking four more blocks, he ended up at a clinic.

The article even mentions copycats after the movie theatre shooting in Colorado:
Previously, a wave of copycat shootings followed the Aurora, Colorado, massacre, during which 12 people were killed and 58 injured at the premiere of the latest Batman film, 'The Dark Knight Rises.'
After Aurora, police arrested a man who claimed to have attended a showing of the new Batman film with a loaded gun. Police found handguns, boxes of ammunition and an illegal automatic weapon in his possession. 
What if these people never heard of Adam Lanza? What if his name wasn't publicized, as Ebert points out, and there were no nihilistic pinups for these troubled people to outdo in body count or publicity?  In K.D Haggerty's book 'Modern Serial Killers" he outlines with numerous accounts how the majority of serial killers enjoyed the media attention and celebrity status bestowed upon them.  John Wayne Gacy, who was also known as the Killer Clown [media nicknames!!], was an American killer and rapist convicted of the sexual assault and murder of 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in Chicago  (source).  Haggerty outlines in his book that Gacy bragged about being in forty-two books, two screenplays, one off-Broadway play, one movie and over 5,000 articles!  How does that not make you feel sick to your stomach? I can barely read past the first sentence of any of these articles about these heinous killers.
What if all public record of Gacy was erased, his name replaced by a number for legal records/court needs, but his images, these articles, everything - were gone.  What if no one knew of the Trench Coat Mafia, just that a shooting occurred and some incredible people were lost, but the killers themselves  received no attention, none of the back story, none of the family interviews or millions of google hits.  
It goes back to what Mr. Ebert points out: this anti-heroes are created, troubled people see these other killers all over the news and they think they can stick it to those they hate and be plastered all over the news.  
If we took this away would we take away copycats?  Of course there are always going to be murders, it's just the sad way of the world.  But as Haggerty points out again 'serial killings are amongst the statistically rarest forms of crime, and without the media, individuals wouldn't have the intimate familiarity with the general dynamics of killings and particular killer's actions.'  You cannot emulate someone you've never heard of.  
Lily O'Donnell's article "Adam Lanza: Continued Coverage of This Maniac will Inspire More Mass Murders" drives home the conclusion in its title.  The media treats tragedy like sporting events, all crowded around the television and wanting to know more and see more.  This brings us full circle back to the monstrosity that was the Casey Anthony trial. There is something more important than viewership - and that is lives.   The medias fixation on every little detail from photographs to 24/7 coverage, creates more of the same.  
During the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting the media was interviewing grade 2 students who had just lived through the most horrific event of their short lives and been reunited with their families.  6 and 7 year olds;  hounded by the media for sound bites for their stories.  There are more important things than ratings.  
This has been a long semester, a long journey, and I had to learn more about a topic I never wanted to than I'll ever be able to forget.  In a way I fed into what I want to prevent - I wrote yet another article outlining the actions of those I hope to be forgotten; gave them more coverage.  However it is in hopes that change can happen.  That in the future these people will be washed away, that they will disappear as quickly as they arrived - without fanfare, without celebrity, without the media digging into and displaying every detail of their lives.  If murders were kept local, or murderers were not identified or turned into pinups for like minded killers, society as a whole may feel a little more safe, and the media could focus on the news of the day, proving journalistic integrity and lives are more important than ratings.  
Is it possible for a company to put anything before their bottom line?
I have never been so glad to finish a course, and a paper in my life.  This process has changed me, through the information I won't be able to forget and the harshness of the bottom line that I can no longer ignore.

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