‘We Can’t Clean Up These Murders’: Media Plans to End Grim, Routine Coverage of Mass Shootings

Texas Tribune staff felt determined to aggressively cover this week’s horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the editor said Sewell Chan, even though they are “exhausted that we have to cover this at all, exhausted that we have to cover this again, and resigned to participating in what at times seems like a numb, meaningless ritual.” In newsrooms across America, a country where mass shootings have become a horrifying facet of daily life, the process has sadly become routine. “We all know the playbook by now. We all know how it goes,” Chan added. “The sorrow, the announcement, the indignation. A semblance of public debate. And then generally no action. And that’s been the pattern, really, for at least two decades, going back to Columbine.

Indeed, as NPR’s National Correspondent Sarah McCammon Put the“I was in high school when Columbine came along. I had kindergarten during Sandy Hook. I have an elementary student now. 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school that follows a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket — and amid decades of recurring tragedies in Newtown, Parkland and elsewhere — journalists and scholars are wondering if the The mainstream coverage model adequately captures the carnage, and even questions whether airing more graphic footage would force the public and political leaders to fully confront the sickening reality of America’s gun violence epidemic.

“I couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago, but it’s time – courtesy of a surviving parent – to show what a downcast 7-year-old looks like.” tweeted David Boardman, the longtime former editor of The Seattle Times who now runs the Temple University School of Journalism. “Perhaps only then will we find the courage to do more than thoughts and prayers.” Nancy Barnes, NPR’s news manager confirmed. “We cannot clean up these killings. That in itself is an editorial decision,” she said. responded.

“Historically, any photograph of a dead body under any circumstance is something we’re quite circumspect and cautious about,” Boardman, who has been involved for decades in making such editorial decisions, told me on Wednesday. “But there are times in history where I think reality – the visual reality of this kind of carnage – may be the only way to really get citizens and politicians to action that is clearly needed.” He cited the “profound difference” that the graphic pictures of the body of Emmett Till published in Jet magazine made for the civil rights movement; or more recently, Darnella FrazierThe cellphone video of the murder of George Floyd.

“It’s clear now that after Sandy Hook, after Buffalo, after dozens of these incidents, just describing the grief, describing the carnage, showing pictures of those precious children…will not be enough.” That’s why Boardman “would advocate that a major publication — whether print, broadcast, or digital — seek out some of these families, within a reasonable time, not today.” Or tomorrow. But maybe next week. And get their permission,” he said. “Obviously they are already saying that these children are not identifiable visually and only by DNA samples. So I think the American people need to see that.

This social media conversation also happened on cable news, with CNN Jake Taper asking the question from the first minutes of his Wednesday show. “You know, there’s footage of these shootings that law enforcement and, frankly, us in the media, don’t share with you. Because they’re so horrific,” the Carry out said the anchor. “But maybe we should. Perhaps the shock to the system would prompt our leaders to figure out how to make sure society can stop these troubled men – and they are almost always men – from getting these guns used to slaughter our children.

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“I understand the sentiment and generally support it, as I am unable to understand what else would change the minds of cowardly senators locked in the grip of the NRA, unable to agree to even modest measures to stop the carnage” said the Columbia University journalism professor. Bill Grueskin told me when I asked him about Boardman’s idea, which he had shared on Twitter. The problem, he said, is that “you can’t get consent from the victim, only from the relatives. Maybe it’s time to add a checkbox to the back of our driver’s licenses, next to the organ donation line, allowing his corpse to be made public to show the horrors of the craze of America for assault weapons.

The type of graphic imagery that some are advocating is, at this time, moot, as it is unclear what photos even exist of the crime scene at Uvalde that would be accessible to the media. And there are a number of reasons why such photos are not made public, including family privacy and journalistic traditions.