The Corner

Culture

An Important Consensus on School Shootings, the Media, and the ‘Columbiner’ Culture

Students from schools across Los Angeles attend a nationwide protest on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting in Los Angeles, Calif., April 20, 2018. (Andrew Cullen/Reuters)

There is a great, and greatly disturbing deep analysis of school shooters in the New York Times.

… the school-shooting copycat syndrome has grown more pervasive and has steadily escalated in recent years. And much of it can be traced back to the two killers at Columbine, previously ordinary high school students who have achieved dark folk hero status — their followers often known as “Columbiners” — in the corners of the internet where their carefully planned massacre is remembered, studied and in some cases even celebrated.

Investigators say school shootings have become the American equivalent of suicide bombings — not just a tactic, but an ideology. Young men, many of them depressed, alienated or mentally disturbed, are drawn to the Columbine subculture because they see it as a way to lash out at the world and to get the attention of a society that they believe bullies, ignores or misunderstands them.

… The role of the media in turning school gunmen into household names and perpetuating “the infamous legacy they desire” can be shown to have inspired additional attacks, researchers at Western New Mexico University reported recently. There have been growing calls for withholding the names and biographies of school gunmen from newspaper and television coverage. The New York Times regularly identifies and profiles the perpetrators, though in order to focus attention on the issue of school shootings and not on the gunmen themselves, this article does not name any of them.

This is, of course, not a new conclusion. Since the Columbine shooting, people have asked, with good reason, whether media coverage — particularly articles and reports that take a “what was going through the shooter’s mind?” tone — creates an incentive for other angry, troubled teenage males.

Back in 1999, J. Bottum in The Weekly Standard wrote a memorable piece all about the killers without ever using their names, pointing out, “the Columbine killers are winning. They wanted to be famous, and they are. They wanted to echo in our minds, and they do. They demanded on the tapes that they receive attention for slaughtering their classmates, and they have.”

Perhaps it’s unrealistic for media to never name school shooters because that’s part of the story. But is it too much to ask that the media minimize any coverage that could be seen as inadvertently glamorizing or sympathizing with school shooters?

From a 2013 Morning Jolt:

…you notice I rarely if ever name the shooters in cases like these. As mentioned above, I think one of the motives of these shooters — at least to the point we can ever understand the motives of people like this — is infamy, a certain fame, a certain sense of empowerment from knowing that everyone who ignored them or mocked them will suddenly care a great deal about what they thought and how they felt, even if it occurs after they’re dead or behind bars. So if everyone in the media would learn to stop writing extensive profiles of these mass murderers, looking at every detail of their pre-massacre lives as if there were something the whole public deserved to know (as opposed to, say, criminologists), we would probably have fewer of them. I know the media doesn’t think they’re glamorizing and celebrating the killers in their coverage, but in the mindset of the deeply troubled, they are; they’re turning them into celebrities. And if there’s anything our modern society values, it’s being famous.

The “No Notoriety” campaign started in 2015.

Separately, the Times article briefly mentions an Internet subculture that is, essentially, pro-school-shooting. If there really is a twisted “Columbiner” subculture that is celebrating these sorts of massacres . . . well, if we’re willing to pressure social-media networks and Internet providers to shut down jihadist and hate-group web sites . . . why wouldn’t we do the same to “Columbiner” chat rooms? Or for that matter, why wouldn’t the FBI or other law-enforcement officials monitor those chat rooms as they do for other extremist groups?

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