The Parkland Survivors Are Changing How the Media Covers School Shootings
In 1999, the media responded to a massacre by creating a playbook for coverage. Now, survivors in Florida are shredding it.
Over the course of the last two decades, the average amount of coverage devoted to individual school shootings has decreased radically. Where the media once spent months covering the mayhem and mourning in painful detail, today’s shootings generally receive roughly two weeks of serious coverage, which may be more than the public actually demands. The process of moving on from tragedy has, in short, been collectively streamlined. Or it had been before the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School got together in the hours after the horrific event and decided not to let the American public move on.
“There’s research that certain issues on the political spectrum can stay in the national discourse for 18 and a half months,” says Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, who has spent the last decade studying the media and how they cover shootings. “It’s extremely rare if a mass shooting makes it past thirty days. They are being covered 24-hours-a-day, but the number of days that they’re being covered is shrinking.”
Schildkraut first noticed that shrinkage after the Las Vegas shooting. “After two weeks, no one was talking about it. How do you just move on from that?” It’s an important question to ask if you fear for the safety of young people. It is also, in essence, the question being asked by the activist survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It is a question that actually has real answers rooted in the trauma of the shooting at Columbine and the journalistic failures that followed. But it is also a question that can rightly be met with a tautological response. People move on because people move on. And, in the wake of the Parkland massacre, survivors are now refusing to move on.
The day after Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas, coverage of the slaughter accounted for 1.4 percent of all sentences spoken on CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, Fox, MSNBC, and Bloomberg according to an analysis performed by The Trace. Within six days, that rate had fallen to a third of a single percent, and within fourteen days of the shooting, sentences about the shooting itself accounted for only .03 percent of the news coverage. And that supply of information matches up, more or less, with demand. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Google Trends Analytics showed an increase in the number of searches related to mass shooting and gun control for 13 days.
But, to Schildkraut’s point, the two-week spike in interest is a foreshortening of public interest in public horror. After Chris Harper-Mercer killed nine people with a Glock 19 and Taurus PT24/7 on a community college campus in Roseburg, Oregon in 2015, the number of daily “gun control” keyword searches remained high for almost a month. And that was a considerably shorter period of interest than the one following the killing of 13 students at Columbine High School in 1999, the event that led to the creation of norms around school shooting coverage.
“Columbine represents this watershed moment for our country where we didn’t have a playbook on how these things should be covered, or how America should grieve,” says Schildkraut. “For that reason, there were a lot of mistakes made.”
The way that the media covered the Columbine Massacre — focusing on the lone and troubled shooters, then on the victims, then pinpointing particularly dramatic moments or narratives, then encouraging a national conversation — was accepted as a sort of playbook despite being largely made up on the spot. CNN, in its mere infancy, used motifs and tropes that viewers now take for granted, including shots of kids fleeing from the school. In doing this, they created a sort of visual language with which to address tragedy while also scrounging around for appropriate vocabulary and ways in which to show victims without appearing bloodless or craven.
What’s remarkable, according to Schildkraut and other scholars, is the degree to which the media experience of tragedy normalized tragedy and made one event almost indistinguishable, for viewers of news, to the next. For instance, the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary left 20 6- and 7-year-old children dead. These children had not bullied Adam Lanza. They had likely never even seen him. Lanza wasn’t killing people who knew so much as he was self-consciously committing a school shooting.
“But even that didn’t get the same amount of coverage as Columbine,” says Schildkraut.
Danielle Killian, a publicist and communications expert who focuses on the fallout of mass killings, describes the coverage of acts of violence as having become “episodic in a really predictable way.”
“You have the violent event, which might be covered by itself, you have the investigation and the point where the perpetrator is in custody. That flow is always the same. There’s the arrest, and then when charges are filed, and then court. We tend to see more of this event-charged cycle. This happens in the flow of nightly news,” she says. She adds that both the quantity of coverage — two weeks at most these days — is as predictable as the content of the coverage.
According to Killian, the predictability of coverage not only makes some conspiracist “resistant to fact” — witness ludicrous theories about “crisis actors” — but it also increases public fatigue. Because the stories are always told the same way, they are fairly easy to ignore. The American public knows the ending already; a slow withdrawal of concern followed by silence followed by the next horror.
Which leads us to Parkland, Florida. The shooting happened more than two weeks ago and is still dominating the news. Searches for gun control remain high. Searches for school shootings remain high. There is no sign that news coverage, fueled by unpopular legislation, loose presidential commentary, and survivors who decline to attempt a return to normalcy, is abating. The coverage does not fit the mold. But it also kind of does.
“No one is talking about the shooting,” points out Schildkraut. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that those kids from that school are super pissed. They’ve taken a much different activist role than we’ve seen in previous shootings.”
In monopolizing the coverage, the kids have pulled the narrative away from the shooter and introduced new narratives for the media to explore. Schildkraut believes that if these kids hadn’t immediately turned around and launched a national campaign in the form of March for Our Lives, that this shooting, too, would have faded. But they did. Now there are stories to tell about retailers pulling assault rifles and the NRA facing boycotts. Now there’s a big story to tell about a march.
Still, sustained coverage isn’t a solution to a public safety crisis — nor is it necessarily a positive if it pushes false narratives and false equivalencies while providing a means for public officials to attempt to comfort their constituents with falsehoods. Coverage can only help so much if it arrives without context.
Schildkraut and Killian both believe that journalists remain too focused on perpetrators and trials. The concern is that, by doing this, members of the media splinter a broader story about a cultural problem into an incoherent series of parables about anger and psychosis. Schildkraut endorses #NoNotoriety, a campaign that aims to stop news anchors and reporters from saying the names of mass shooters. Part of this is to discourage copycat killings — and many school shootings may be copycat killings — but it’s also to push the media away from Columbine conventions and to help turn coverage into a conversation.
For better or for worse, the media, underfunded, reactionary, and serving an increasingly politically polarized audience, may not be as well positioned to change the narrative as survivors and families of victims. Understanding the problem and fixing it is a lot to ask of teenagers, but the evidence seems to indicate that the survivors of the Parkland killing may be doing exactly that. They have changed the news cycle by taking it over and, in so doing, created a rubric for post-killing advocacy and action. They are demanding more than two weeks of attention and, shockingly, they are getting it.
Americans will likely find this encouraging regardless of their feeling on gun control, but the reality remains that the feverish coverage of Columbine evolved into something that felt, for American readers and viewers, considerably less urgent. And that could happen again. Months of coverage will become weeks will become days if not just victims’ families, but as consumers of news ascent to move on.