Two months ago, the day after a young man walked into Seattle Pacific University and opened fire with a shotgun, a group of reporters crowded into a tiny viewing corridor at the King County Jail. We were going to get our first look at the suspect through a glass wall. He was about to be denied bail. Photographers took up positions in the first row, standing at the ready with their cameras. TV videographers began to unfold bulky tripods. Newspaper writers sat with notepads on their laps. Some of us made small talk to pass the time in the stuffy little room.
Finally, the suspect emerged. He was dressed in a forest-green suicide smock and led into the courtroom by two guards. Everyone pushed up against the glass; those in the back stood up on their tiptoes. Cameras zoomed in and clicked furiously. Within seconds, the world had its first glimpse of the SPU shooter—his blank, downcast, unshaven visage immediately broadcast on live television and published across cyberspace. Within minutes, he’d been returned to jail, where he was on suicide watch. The suspect was charged with one count of premeditated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and one count of second-degree assault. His court-appointed lawyer, Ramona Brandes, indicated that he will plead not guilty “by reason of insanity” when the case goes to trial.
The day after the bail hearing, the gunman’s name and photograph appeared on the cover of Seattle’s biggest newspaper and on websites across the country. And over a month later, his name showed up again in new headlines, when a lightly redacted version of a four-page journal entry from a week prior to the shooting was released to the media. “I use to feel bad for the ones who were killed, but now Eric Harris and Seung Hui Cho became my idols,” the shooter wrote, referring to the gunmen of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, respectively.
As of this writing, a Google search for the SPU shooter’s name brings up 409,000 hits—52,000 more than for Jon Meis, the 22-year-old student who selflessly subdued the shooter before he could claim more victims. And it brings up far more hits than the name of the deceased, Paul Lee, a 19-year-old from Portland who was known for his dancing talents. When he was shot in the chest, Lee became the tenth person to die in an American school shooting this year.
School shootings are so common that it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever stop. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama after the horrific 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut, and since then there have been school shootings in Oregon, California, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. Most agree that universal background checks would help somewhat—Washington State voters will be considering a universal-background-checks initiative this fall, Initiative 594, but most states are a long way off from something similar.
And while we are aghast at the frequency of school shootings and the lack of political will to do anything about it, the public continues to crave information about these killers. And news outlets provide it. But there is a theory gaining mainstream acceptance that the way the media report on shootings may lead to more shootings.
The thought is that media coverage inadvertently glorifies these killers, which then inspires copycats. Researchers at Texas State University are in the process of studying whether media coverage does in fact lead to more mass shootings, but anecdotal evidence suggests there is some truth to it.
Some experts say that airing video footage of shootings can be particularly harmful. But now, against the wishes of a group of Seattle Pacific University shooting victims and witnesses, along with the university itself, the city’s four major TV stations are seeking the release of surveillance video from the June 5 SPU shooting, arguing that the public has a right to the information. Its release is currently tied up in the courts, but if the judge rules in the stations’ favor, the media frenzy around the SPU shooting could be renewed, and a new cycle of violence could continue.
For years, forensic psychiatrists have been urging American journalists to reform the way they report on these incidents. In a 2009 BBC interview, perhaps the best known among those psychiatrists, Dr. Park Dietz, said: “We’ve had 20 years of mass murders throughout which I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”
In an interview with KUOW after the Seattle Pacific University shooting, Dietz complained that he’d been ignored. “I have been on CNN at least three times saying, ‘If you keep this up, we’re going to have another one within two weeks,’” he said. “And I’ve been right all three times.”
At least one CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper, appears to have heard Dietz’s call. On his nightly news program, Cooper has a policy of covering school shootings without naming shooters. “We don’t use the names of shooters on this program because we don’t think they should get publicity,” Cooper said as he interviewed Seattle mayor Ed Murray the day after the SPU shooting, adding, “I don’t think people should remember their names. I always think people should remember the names of people like Paul Lee, who died.” Without naming the suspect, Cooper asked the mayor about the mental disorders the alleged shooter was reportedly struggling with.
Among mainstream television programs, Cooper is an exception. But he’s on to something: The media has a responsibility to balance the public’s right to know with an ethical responsibility that takes into account the powerful role the media plays in influencing people’s thoughts and actions.
You’ll notice you’ve made it this far into this story without me using the SPU shooter’s name, and it hasn’t made this story so confusing that you can’t follow it. Of course, the SPU shooter’s name has already been splashed across headlines. On June 7, his name made up the first words of a front-page article in the Seattle Times, under the banner headline “SUSPECT BESET BY DEMONS,” accompanied by a photo of him from the bail hearing.
I’d spent the afternoon and evening of the SPU shooting interviewing traumatized students under a circling news helicopter, and the whole media spectacle left me feeling a bit sick. The next day, I was assigned to go to the suspect’s arraignment. I texted my editor: “I do worry a bit: we shouldn’t publicize the [alleged] shooter too much, right? People say doing that is what inspires copycats.” My editor replied: “It’s not about publicizing him. It’s explaining how this happened, how he got his weapons, whether there were mental health issues, whether there are things to learn. That’s how we get to better policy.” That’s how I ended up in King County Jail crowded into that viewing corridor with other journalists to see the suspect brought out in shackles. That afternoon, The Stranger published his name on our blog, along with an embedded photo that had been beamed out on Twitter by a news photographer. Granted, the photo of him, looking pale and skinny in the courtroom, didn’t make him look heroic. Nor did reporting on his history of mental health problems.
But it can’t be denied: Shooters have been shown to identify with other disaffected individuals. According to the Seattle Times, the SPU gunman heard Columbine killer Eric Harris’s voice in his head and even traveled to Columbine out of fascination with the 1999 massacre. We don’t know if he’d watched the surveillance videos of Columbine, though they are available on YouTube. They’ve been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
There isn’t peer-reviewed scientific data on how media coverage affects the likelihood of copycat killers. But there is a lot of peer-reviewed scientific data establishing a link between media coverage of suicides and increased suicide rates. Through a process called modeling, some people who observe another person’s actions (including on TV or in a newspaper) will seek to emulate them. “The more characteristics you make available for modeling, the more likely that modeling will occur,” Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told me recently.
“If you talk about it, that’s one thing,” she said. “But if you actually show it with multimedia, then that increases the likelihood of modeling in ways that are consistent with the original behavior.”
When it comes to suicide, Harkavy-Friedman explained, there are two related and proven dynamics at work, both based on modeling behavior: copycat suicide (someone committing suicide in the same manner as someone else’s publicized suicide) and contagion (a pattern of several suicides occurring closely in time, and typically location, often including copycats).
Research has linked suicide contagion to media coverage. In Austria, for example, two studies found that after a campaign to encourage less dramatic media coverage of subway suicides, subway suicide attempts dropped by 80 percent over six months. “Suicide and attempted suicide should in general never be given any mention,” declared the Norwegian Press Association in its 1994 Code of Ethics. The same year in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control, after convening a national workshop to study the issue, set forth a series of more moderate guidelines for reporters that are strikingly similar to those proffered by Dietz: don’t be sensational, don’t engage in excessive coverage, don’t venerate or glorify the victim, among them. And in May of this year, a study in the Lancet British medical journal by Columbia University psychiatrist Madelyn Gould confirmed in academic parlance what’s long been increasingly accepted as common wisdom among journalists: “Newspaper coverage of suicide is significantly associated with the initiation of suicide clusters.” The study, based on an exhaustive, granular survey of 48 such clusters and attendant media coverage, found that even mentioning the word “suicide” in a headline correlated with an uptick in suicides.
The scientific community has not yet, according to Harkavy-Friedman, done the kind of definitive research to show that the same copycat and contagion effects also apply to school shootings. But “I don’t think there’s any reason to think it wouldn’t have an effect, given that for other forms of violence it has been shown to have an effect,” Friedman told me. “And most mass murders also include suicide.”
Peter Blair, a criminologist at Texas State University’s ALERRT Center—it stands for Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training—is setting out to fill that research gap. “We’re working right now,” Blair said in an interview, on “the effect of media coverage on active shooter events to see if there’s a contagion effect.” Last month, Blair and his doctoral students published a study on the FBI’s website, funded by the state of Texas and the federal government, showing the rise of school or mass shootings—what he calls “active shooter events”—from 2000 to 2012, excluding gang activity. Coinciding with the study’s publication, the FBI launched a “Don’t Name Them” campaign, encouraging reporters not to identify shooters by name because it raises their profile, inspires copycats, and rewards them with notoriety.
Reporters from KIRO 7, KOMO, KING 5, Q13 Fox, and the Seattle Times all filed public disclosure requests to obtain a three-minute video of the SPU shooting, which reportedly shows the shooter walking into Otto Miller Hall, having already killed one student, and aiming a shotgun at another student but not firing, then pointing at another student and firing from close range. According to court documents, both of these student victims’ faces are pixelated. Then Jon Meis takes the attacker down.
SPU is a private university, so its officials are under no obligation to release its surveillance footage to the public. However, when SPU cooperated with the Seattle Police Department in its investigation, the officials handed over the video, at which point it became evidence—and therefore subject to public disclosure laws.
The police were poised to release the video, but the university and a group of anonymous victims and witnesses (named as John and Jane Doe in legal filings; there could be between 1 and 15 of them) sued the media outlets and the city itself to block the video’s release, citing exemptions written into the Public Records Act. “The surveillance video depicts one of the most traumatic, private moments of John Does’ and Jane Does’ lives, including the attack upon them and its aftermath,” the suit states. “Releasing the video would unquestionably be highly offensive to a reasonable person” and furthermore, the complaint alleges, its release “would hinder law enforcement efforts by giving mass shooters attention, exposure, and notoriety.”
On July 3, King County commissioner Carlos Velategui issued a restraining order to block the video’s release. Velategui had quietly listened to the lawyers’ arguments and viewed the video itself. Before embarking on a 20-minute rant, he warned that his opinion might seem “disjointed.” Then he began lambasting the media’s interest in “all things scatological” and “sensational.”
“I’m 70, damn near,” the judge told the lawyers. “You see a witness have a shotgun pointed at him. You see a victim get shot. The public has no concern about how that happened… of what concern does the public have in watching someone with a can of mace attack a perpetrator? What concern is there of the public? Maybe some interest, but that’s not the language of the statute,” he said, referring to Washington’s Public Records Act, which states that a privacy exemption applies in cases when material is both highly offensive to a reasonable person and “not of legitimate concern to the public.”
If the video is released, Velategui continued, “It will be cut up, it will be changed and presented in the most awful of ways to the public for the pure purpose of ratings… It will be on at 5:00. It will be on at 5:30. It will be on at 6:30. It will be on at 7:00. It will be on at 7:30. And then, if you turn it over to CNN, it will be on all night for three weeks before the public gets tired of it.
“To what point?” Velategui asked. “It’s not serving any purpose to keep the government on its toes. Not one wit.”
The TV stations appealed the ruling, and on July 22, Superior Court judge Helen Halpert overturned it. Hers was a far less colorful ruling, emphasizing the media’s presumptive right to public information under the state law except in rare, exempted circumstances. “The court, having viewed the video several times, is satisfied that the videotape is subject to disclosure, with faces pixelated,” Halpert wrote.
The plaintiffs—the university and the students—appealed. The Washington State Court of Appeals took up the case on August 1 and is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on the plaintiffs’ motion for a restraining order soon. According to a brief filed by the Seattle city attorney, the case is one of “first impression,” meaning it’s potentially precedent setting for the courts because it’s about victims of a traumatic event asking that a public record about them be withheld from disclosure.
At stake are a host of weighty issues. The arguments so far have touched on everything from the integrity of the campus security system and fears of terrorism, to the original purpose of transparency laws and journalistic freedom, to the past release of explicit materials in a child molestation case, to whether private entities would be discouraged from cooperating with law enforcement if their own videos can be made public.
But the central focus has been on the media. The lawyer for the TV stations, Eric Stahl, sounded triumphant in a phone interview following the Superior Court decision. “Public servants do not decide what the people should know or not know. It’s a matter of sovereignty,” he said.
“I’m certainly not here to dispute that the pain of the individual victims is real,” Stahl hastened to add. “My clients certainly get that. They live in this community too and many of them know people who were affected. But they also have a duty to fully account for the events that day… Some people may want to see an unvarnished view of the evil that was perpetuated that day. It’s important to see violence for what it is, not the sanitized version that we usually get.”
The video itself, Stahl argued, “implicates the public concern over school safety. It raises issues about access to guns and mental health in society. Some people may want to see if the official account of events is accurate or not… the point is it’s a choice for people, not lawyers, not victims, and not judges.”
He said his clients will look at the video, if they are successful in obtaining it, and then make the call over what to do with it. “They’re entitled to get it… they get to make the decision.”
Stahl’s case that the media has a right to obtain the video is compelling. It is not up to the victims of crimes or private entities to dictate what aspects of the public record journalists can and cannot obtain. By infringing on journalists’ rights to information, you are, by extension, infringing on the public’s right to information.
“If you want to go on a campaign to urge reporters to tone it down, that’s fine,” Stahl told me. “It has to be done through discretion, it can’t be done through suppression.” Of course, “discretion” means different things to different people.
Both Harkavy-Friedman and Blair—the suicide expert and the criminologist, both with PhDs in their respective fields—were unambiguous about the SPU surveillance video: local news outlets should not disseminate it because it will likely inspire copycats.
Plus, “you’re not going to learn anything from that video that’s not already in the public sphere,” Blair says. Want to watch a video about a mass shooting? He urges people to watch the government’s own heart-pounding “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT. Surviving an Active Shooter Event” instructional video—with more than two million views on YouTube and counting.
Stahl, the lawyer representing the TV stations, says that scientists have “simply not delivered the goods” when it comes to proving the media’s link to school shootings. That’s true. It has not been proved.
The expert testimony, however, is overwhelming. Richard Adler, a Harvard-educated forensic psychiatrist, filed a declaration in Superior Court after the restraining order was appealed, stating: “It is my opinion, with reasonable medical certainty, that the release and publication of the subject video would be harmful, and not helpful, to the public and would likely serve as the basis or inspiration for future copycat terrorists acts at a school in Washington or beyond.”
In his 12-page brief, Adler pointed to cases in the history of Washington State, including the case of Kyle Huff, the perpetrator of the 2006 Capitol Hill massacre, where six people lost their lives. Analysis of Huff’s hard drive revealed that he, like the SPU shooter, was inspired by the Columbine shootings. And to this day, as Adler reminded the court, chilling surveillance video from the Columbine High School cafeteria is widely available on YouTube, with hundreds of thousands of views: “The most recent comment was posted one month ago and was written by ‘MaZaKeRaL.’ The comment posted by MaZaKeRaL needed to be edited by YouTube. What remains of the comment is simply, ‘This footage is very inspirational.’”
There’s also the recent case of a 23-year-old University of Washington student who was apparently inspired by the violent misogyny of UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger. Rodger killed six people before committing suicide in May. The UW student was arrested at his Seattle dormitory after an attentive YouTube user noticed his comments on a video relating to Rodgers’ manifesto and reported them. “I am the next Elliot Rodger,” the YouTube comment said. “And guess what, I’ll do the right thing this time. I’ll make sure I only kill women.”
According to the sociologist James Fox, whom Adler quotes in his briefing, “The contagion of school shootings… began on February 2, 1996, in the sleepy town of Moses Lake,” Washington. In that case, a 14-year-old walked into his algebra class and killed two classmates and his math teacher while she wrote an equation on a chalkboard. Then, according to witnesses, he stood and smiled and uttered a snide remark inspired by the Stephen King novel Rage. Within months, several other shootings occurred, and in some cases, the attackers cited Rage as an inspiration.
Stephen King’s response was interesting: The best-selling author insisted that artists cannot be held responsible for the actions of others—a novel alone cannot cause someone to commit a violent act. But he also decided to do what he could to minimize the harm that seemed to be linked to this book he’d written. “King took the unusual step of asking his publisher not to print any more copies of the book,” the Denver Post reported in 1999, and let the novel fall out of print. The author told Dateline, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.”
As for the SPU surveillance video, if it is released and published, it will rocket around the Internet and almost certainly make national news. NBC and the New York Daily News both covered the release of the alleged shooter’s journal.
Considering that journalism is a race to get information out and consumers demand more information than ever, can we really expect most media outlets to act with the same restraint as Stephen King?
On the day of the shooting at SPU, cameramen were shoving and elbowing me, as well as each other, to get into position when the police came out from Otto Miller Hall to offer a statement. While Detective Patrick Michaud explained what he knew about the casualties and injuries so far, he also told the reporters that “whoever owns the helicopter” flying overhead needed to get rid of it. It’s “disruptive and disrespectful,” Michaud said.
I asked the news directors of all four of Seattle’s TV stations what news value they see in the SPU surveillance video and, if they obtain it, what they plan to do with it—despite the objections of the shooting victims and witnesses, and despite persuasive theories that its release could contribute to the incidence of future shootings.
“We submitted a public records request for this material as we do for any major incident. I have not seen the tape, so I cannot say what the news value is or if there is any news value at all,” Q13 Fox news director Erica Hill told me. “Our access to the video is so that we can evaluate that as journalists. If we did obtain the video, we would follow our procedures of deciding what, if any, news value there would be in airing it. If there is no news value, we would not. If there is news value, we would communicate the reasons why to our viewers and handle it responsibly.” (None of the other stations responded to requests for comment from The Stranger.)
Asked for his opinion, Mayor Ed Murray said, “I believe we should honor the families’ wishes unless there is a reason [that] releasing the video would assist in the investigation or prosecution.”
Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a spokesperson for SPD, said, “Will people truly benefit from those actions playing forever in an endless YouTube loop? Is that truly in the public interest? Because believe it or not, there are people who draw inspiration from murderous acts.”
It’s clear where the mayor, the SPD, and forensic psychiatrists stand on the video’s release. What about journalism experts? “Our code tries to explain to a journalist the need to get to the truth but in a way that takes into account the harm that you’re going to do,” said Kevin Smith, who chairs the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee. “We all know that we can’t report the truth without causing harm to someone.”
Smith added, “You can articulate what happened on that video without showing it.” Detailed information about what’s on the video is already readily available: King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s charging documents against the SPU shooter provide a blow-by-blow account of the shooting. Smith’s opinion is that showing the video “would cause unnecessary, undue harm to the victims. I think exposing it causes a whole different pattern of unethical behavior.”
I also called Fred Brown, the vice chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee. He was reticent to endorse Anderson Cooper’s policy of not naming the perpetrators in mass shootings. “At the beginning of the story, there’s probably good reason to say who did it. I do think there needs to be a name. But to keep saying who did it, in every incident of the future, doesn’t seem necessary. I have a certain amount of respect for Anderson Cooper for electing not to name people… But I think you have an obligation to your audience.”
When we discussed the prospect of broadcasting the SPU surveillance video, Brown’s comments turned blunt: “I don’t think they should use it, frankly. It’s in very poor taste. It is verging on unethical to use it. You have to ask yourself, what does it accomplish? And I can’t think of anything that it adds to public understanding. It’s sensationalistic.”
To recap: That was King County commissioner Velategui’s view, but his opinion was overruled by Superior Court judge Halpert, who nonetheless said, “It is the court’s hope that the media defendants will employ sound editorial judgment in their use of the videotape, focusing on the acts of heroism instead of the acts of justice.” The case is now before the Washington State Court of Appeals. If Judge Halpert’s ruling is upheld, the lawyer for the plaintiffs said he would immediately petition the Washington State Supreme Court.
Brad Thoreson, the attorney for the shooting’s victims and witnesses, said he’s confident that “civic-minded” liberal justices like Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez would rule in their favor.
For Thoreson, the fight is personal. He’s an alumnus of Seattle Pacific University and his son lived across the dormitory hall from Paul Lee, the student killed outside Otto Miller Hall. In one of the hearings, Thoreson raised his voice and confessed to being “incensed” by his opposing counsel’s arguments; in another, he accused the opposing side of having “no empathy.” In the surveillance video, which he has seen, the shooter “comes off the street having killed Paul Lee and goes in and points a gun at an individual,” Thoreson told me angrily. “It’s a bunch of kids who are being terrorized.”
No one except university officials and lawyers, the police, the judges, and the victims’ lawyers has seen the video—but that could change. The Court of Appeals ruling could come as soon as this week.