By Lana A. Whited
Whited teaches English and directs the Boone Honors Program at Ferrum College.
In an honors seminar at Ferrum College a few semesters ago, a student who is now a Virginia State Trooper asked the class how many victims of the Columbine High School shooting (1999) we could name. My jaw dropped. I could name three of thirteen, although I could name both shooters, as well as the shooters in most school shootings of the 1990s.
For me, it was a moment of truth.
My colleague Sharon Stein, a developmental psychologist, and I had taught our Media and Violence seminar repeatedly since creating it in 2006. It is an opportunity to investigate the media-violence relationship with very talented students. We do not tell students what to think, but we hope we provide them with a broad context for examining what we consider a public health crisis.
Our guiding principle has always been Senator Bill Bradley’s comment that “violence is a fire, fed by many flames,” a statement featured on our syllabus. We offer a multidisciplinary investigation of factors we believe relevant, including lack of effective gun regulation, insufficient mental health care, bullying, saturation news coverage of violence, and parental ignorance about the media lives of their children.
In 15 years, we and our students haven’t reached consensus on many solutions. But we do all agree that too much media attention is aimed at those who turn guns on others. This is what I realized on the day I could only name three Columbine victims. We were discussing a well-documented phenomenon called the Copycat Effect.
An Associated Press article about the El Paso shooting (Sunday, Aug. 4), also referred to a California shooting last weekend. In that paragraph, the California shooter was named. The El Paso shooter was named only twice. This attention to him is minimal, but we might debate whether the California shooter needed re-naming more than a week after that event.
It is established that shooters emulate, maybe idolize, other shooters. In his media manifesto, the Virginia Tech shooter named the Columbine shooters as influences. The phenomenon is so well documented that you will find sources such as “(Name of school) copycats” online. The presence of these names in cyberspace only increases their ubiquity in search results.
The week after Columbine, Time imprinted the killers’ faces large on the cover, framed by small images of the victims. Ask any older American to name three figures from the 1960s, and it’s likely one of them will have killed someone (probably in Hollywood 50 years ago this week).
Killers kill for notoriety, and innocent people are their casualties.
We’re just about to begin our course again, and I will not be uttering any shooter’s name.
Don’t get me wrong: as a long-time journalism teacher, I don’t advocate omitting shooters’ names from news accounts. I know the name is an important news fact.
I propose that we exercise caution in saying shooters’ names and writing them on social media. It’s easy to describe avoiding their names. Let them fade from modern media myth.
I sometimes wonder whether our course exploits victims’ memory. I hope it honors them instead. In 2015, in Denver on business, I went to Littleton to pay respects at the Columbine Memorial. Today, the memory of individual plaques bearing victims’ names and the view of the school from the rise over the memorial help me keep my bearings. I was accompanied on that trip by two students, one of whom taught our class about the Copycat Effect.
At the end of every Media and Violence seminar, we ask students to write a letter to a real person in a position to make some small chink in this huge problem. They write to movie theatre owners about enforcing MPAA ratings, to television news directors about their coverage of violence, to school guidance counselors about anti-bullying initiatives, to Walmart to ask them to stop selling guns. One year, a Ferrum student wrote to a school superintendent about the risk-assessment recommendations in the FBI’s Columbine report, and he subsequently hired her.
These may seem like simplistic steps. But even taking small steps shifts a students’ focus from “what can society do?” to “what can I do?”
I’ve recently observed that social media users spend a lot of time telling others that their ideas won’t make a difference (this is especially true of the gun debate). I propose that we shift our focus to what each of us CAN do.
I can stop saying the shooters’ names. Then I’ll think about what I can do next.