Author: Cole Novatt, Johns Hopkins University _______________________________________________________________________________________
On October 22nd, 2014, an armed attacker killed a Canadian soldier at Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa before rushing into the Canadian Parliament, where he was ultimately killed by the Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers. Only two days later, another shooting occurred across the border, this time at a high school in Washington State. While the contexts of both shootings are nearly incomparable, one key deviation rises above the rest: the differences between American and Canadian news coverage of such violent events.
Canada does not often experience situations as violent as the Parliament Hill shooting, so a lot of pressure was riding on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation anchor Peter Mansbridge when he began his real-time coverage of the events. As he delivered the broadcast, it became clear that his methodology, and thus the methodology of the national Canadian television broadcaster that he represented, was markedly different from the methodologies of recent American journalism. I encourage you to watch this clip of his coverage, and try to spot the stylistic differences between his broadcast and those you may have seen on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the like. While the shooting almost certainly shook Mansbridge emotionally, he was able to maintain his poise and deliver a clear, calm broadcast. He specifically emphasized that the information he received at such a tenuous time was often unpredictable, and refused to make any unfounded assertions from this information.
American coverage of the same event takes an entirely different route. This video reveals the wild assumptions that many major American news outlets make without any regard for their credibility or relevance. For example, these outlets use words such as “terror” and “act of war”, and even include speculation that the shooter may have converted to Islam. Even before the shooting was over and the all-clear whistle was blown, American news coverage was already infused with sensationalism and emotion.
This style of coverage not only incites panic amongst the American public, but it also affects the accuracy of the stories themselves. During the Washington Navy Yard shooting of September 2013, American media misstated the perpetrator’s name, age, and the number of weapons he was carrying. Similar mistakes were made during coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013, when members of the entertainment website Reddit thought they had identified the suspects through a sort of amateur, virtual witch-hunt. Before these innocent “suspects” were cleared, the American cable news outlets had no qualms about spreading their tenuous information across television, newspaper, and the Internet. Even more disturbing is the fact that American news outlets have no reason to stop this sort of coverage – there are essentially no legal repercussions for giving false information in news reports, since they can claim that information is always questionable during these “developing situations”.
While it is useful to analyze the differences in news coverage about the Canadian Parliament Hill shooting, it is more insightful to compare the media coverage of that event to the coverage of the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuk High School in Washington State – a mere two days after Parliament Hill. On October 24th, Jalen Fryberg, a student and former homecoming prince, walked into the cafeteria of the high school and shot five of his fellow classmates.
Did you notice the details I disclosed about this event? I listed the killer’s name and his background, but very little information about the victims. This is similar to the type of information that many American news outlets present – when shootings occur, the first piece of information coming from American news media is often a picture of the shooter with his or her name, and they tend to ignore the victims until much later. Ansel Herz, in his article about the Seattle Pacific University shooter, attempted to connect the results found in suicide coverage studies to mass shooting coverage in the media. Many studies have shown that media coverage is linked to suicide rates. For example, two studies in Austria revealed that decreasing the amount of drama infused into media coverage of subway suicides correlated with an 80 percent drop in suicide rates over six months. Dramatic media coverage is thought to increase the prevalence of modeling, which is when one some people see another person’s actions and seek to imitate them. Modeling includes two different dynamics: copycat suicide (someone committing suicide in the same manner as another person’s publicized suicide) and contagion (a pattern of many suicides occurring closely in place, time, etc.).
These same dynamics can be recognized in media coverage of shootings. By focusing on the shooters, the media often encourages “copycat killers,” or individuals who see these shooters anti-heroes and then commit similar acts to gain a similar sort of attention. The gunman responsible for the recent Seattle Pacific University shooting in June said himself that he became obsessed with the Columbine shooters after their histories were plastered all over the country for months. While American news outlets may think that their specific type of coverage does no harm, it in fact seems to glorify shooters and incite further violence.
Again, we should compare this type of coverage to that of Canadian news broadcasting during the Parliament Hill shooting. While reading the comments under a variety of news articles about the shooting, I noticed that many Canadians commented that until international coverage began to dominate headlines and permeate Canadian society a few days after the shooting, they were generally unaware of the perpetrator’s name. Even more importantly, the sole victim, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, had his name and picture plastered across Canadian television reports and newspaper articles immediately after the attack – a clear contrast to American news media, which focused on the shooter first. In addition, the man who shot and killed the shooter in order to defend the Ministers of Parliament, Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, was proclaimed a hero. The focus of Canadian news coverage was not on the perpetrator, but the victim and the man who defended members of Canada’s government. While the Canadian government is most likely working hard to figure out the attacker’s background and motivation behind the shooting, details of this investigation have not been made public through the Canadian media.
I argue that American media should look to the Canadian media as a possible model for reform. While it is understandable that the American public desires to know the details about shootings within the United States, this public knowledge does not assist in promoting and maintaining public safety. On the contrary, according to statistics provided by the Canadian government, in 2012 the firearm-related homicide rate in Canada was 0.49 out of every 100,000 people, whereas the same rate in the United States in 2012 was 3.51. Each country’s gun policy obviously influences these numbers, but that is not the point. The different coverage strategy employed by American media clearly does not reduce the frequency of these shootings, and as has been shown, one may even argue that this strategy increases their occurrence through the same dynamics of modeling that have been observed trough suicide coverage. While it is unfair to assume that all American news media abides by one form of coverage and all Canadian news media abides by another, it is not unfair to note that there is a clear difference between the two. Not only should many American news outlets reduce their use of sensationalism when covering mass shootings, but they also need to show more compassion towards the victims of these shootings and avoid glorifying the shooters. By following in our northern neighbors’ footsteps, news outlets can make a good first step towards achieving these goals.
 G. Sonneck, E. Etzersdorfer and S. Nagel-Kuess, “Imitative Suicide on the Viennese Subway,” Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 38, Issue, 3, Feb. 1994, pp. 453-457.