We Need Standards To Cover Mass Shootings

Tragedies in two days in a row show the challenges to cover such events in a thorough but ethical manner

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

Wednesday, March 13th in Suzano, Greater São Paulo: two former students shoots a relative of one of them, to immediately after invading their high school and kill seven people, five of them teenagers.

Thursday, March 14th in Christchurch, New Zealand: an Australian man enters a mosque shooting and kills 41. He then goes to another temple and kills seven more people.

Security footage recorded the Brazilian episode. In New Zealand, the shooter streamed his crime on Facebook in real time.

How should the press report on this kind of crimes? What images and information should become public and how to portray the killers? Any manifestos left behind or social media posts should be reproduced to help understand their motives or this kind of coverage encourages copycats?

Brazilian newsrooms faced these questions - none of them with quick and easy answers - among the pressure of informed quickly and accurately their audiences.

Folha's decision to publish photos of the Suzano shooters bloody bodies was intensely criticized by some readers. The newspaper also posted an edited video of them shooting and attacking students inside the school. On the other hands, the paper opted for not publishing video from New Zealand's shooter.

Managing editor Vinicius Mota responded to the criticism saying: "The Suzano shooters' photos were published only online, where we can post a disclaimer warning that the images are strong, and they were newsworthy because they show the perpetrators' brutality. Same goes for the video, which we edited to preserve the victims' privacy, and we made sure to avoid gratuitous violent scenes there as well."

Regarding the New Zealand story, the editors deemed impossible to edit the video and keep it coherent and decided to forgo it.

I find it hard to find a justification to publish the dead killers' photo. It would be easy to resort to other journalistic decisions to avoid publishing photos of dead bodies in situations that cause revulsion and dread. There are times when publishing such photos is unavoidable - but in most instances it's unnecessary.

The United States has been debating these issues since at least 1999 when two young men killed twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School and then killed themselves. Columbine became a reference for following school shooters.

Researchers and victim support groups defend restricting the visibility given to the shooters, by providing few details on their methods or any messages left behind.  Folha, however, gave ample space to the Christchurch shooter's "manifesto." How important is it to publish an amateurish analysis of miscegenation in development?

Mota said that the newsroom evaluates each case by Folha's journalistic principles. "Since not reporting is out of the question, it comes down to what elements we are going to report on," he said.

There are guidelines on how to cover suicides and kidnappings, for example. I stand by the right of publishing as much relevant information as possible. However, only what is relevant.

Here's the challenge: how to balance the public interest in a mass shooting with the public interest of avoiding copycat crimes.

It's about time Folha creates guidelines on how to cover mass shootings, and list a series of recommendations to guide how to report the facts on such stories, usually filled with tension, repercussion and ethical questions.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

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