The reporter who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing initially thought she was in Charleston, S.C. to chronicle the lives of nine churchgoers who died in 2015 when a stranger with a Glock murdered them while they were praying.
The names, mug shots and one paragraph each about the lives of those nine victims did make it into Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's story, "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof," published in GQ in September 2017.
But the rest of her over 12,000-word story told the tale of their killer instead. Ghansah spared nothing in tracking down intimate details of the shooter's life, coming from his childhood friends, elementary school principal, church minister, co-workers, teenage pals and more. The reporter went back to his birth, telling of the isolation of his school years as a low-income white boy, can't-get-out-of-bed depression, rancid racism, incessant preparations for killing African-American parishioners and his death sentence for a federal hate crime conviction.
It's an incredible work of journalism, but also an example of the type of mass shooting coverage that's maddening to advocates who, for years, have tried to little avail to persuade the media to stop publishing the names and images of mass shooters.
Adam Lankford, one of the nation's leading academics who studies mass shootings, and a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, said he respects Ghansah and her skillful work, because in-depth investigations like this piece can help scholars find patterns and create solutions to the nation's mass shooting epidemic. But, he added, he wishes Ghansah knew how dangerous it is to publish mass shooters' names and photos.
"The Charleston church shooter received more than $17 million worth of free advertising in media mentions following his attack," Lankford said. "He has already been cited as a source of inspiration by multiple copycats, including the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooter who killed 26 victims and wounded 20 more."
There's mounting evidence of a contagion effect in media coverage of mass shootings and school shootings, but experts say that most journalists know nothing about the research. Victims' advocates and academic scholars who urge media reform have said the media is doing better at reporting more about victims, survivors and the community, but they feel frustrated by their lack of progress in getting the press to limit the use of mass shooters' names and images. Because reporters and editors know that reporting about mass shooters can help society by highlighting problems and potential solutions, it's key that journalists themselves start a discussion about how to fulfill their duty to society, while also limiting the harmful effects of mass shooting coverage.
"No individual journalist wants to think his or her well-intentioned work is contributing to further carnage," said University of Oregon journalism professor Nicole Smith Dahmen, who researches media coverage of mass shootings. "But we have to ask ourselves: What is the morally responsible thing to do here?"
She said it's time for newsrooms to discuss changing their reporting of "who" in mass shooting stories because of the mounting evidence about how harmful the coverage can be. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics requires journalists to seek the truth and report it, but also minimize harm, she said.
The first step is learning about the research. Even those journalists who know about some of the research don't realize "how compelling and persuasive it is," Lankford said. "It's more than just anecdotal evidence. It's not just speculative."
Over the past three years, academic scholars prying into mass shootings have built a convincing body of evidence to show that media coverage is causing harm.
A new mass shooting gets its...