Remember 30: Power of the medium

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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I was a feminist – even then – and committed to the idea of equality, so to see someone take a gun and kill people because women had the audacity to study what this man thought was a male-oriented pursuit, like engineering, was completely shocking to me.

I remember being overwhelmed by the emotion of it – incredibly angry at the injustice of it.

I was also shocked at the visual images that came out of that coverage at that time. There were two photographs that circulated widely that we would never ever think to use today.

One was of a woman on the stretcher. She had been shot and her shirt was flipped open. I cannot remember if she was alive or dead, but her breast was exposed. A second was of a body in the cafeteria, and the photograph had been taken through the window, so it wasn’t very clear, but a bunch of people said, ‘That’s my daughter.’ She wasn’t identifiable, but again we would never, ever subject survivors to that kind of trauma now. We teach our journalism students not to revictimize victims.

The balance between coverage of an alleged perpetrator and those who suffered, and/or died, has also changed over the past 30 years. Now, we limit coverage of accused persons, and downplay details of the crime.

To illustrate how the old-style coverage affects people, I would note that even today, while I remember that 14 women died and 14 people were injured, I remember no details about them.

In contrast, I know exactly who Marc Lepine was, and what his mother said about him, and other bits of information.

That style of coverage glorified and perhaps even encouraged people who commit mass atrocities.

Media coverage has come a long way since then. A lot of research and data show, quite concretely, that people who choose to do what Marc Lepine did, or what school shooters do, are not a result of a rampage, a one-off or the fact they suddenly snapped. No, research has shown this is usually a process of months and months and months of planning, and coverage needs to depict this accurately.

There are a lot of signs and reasons that coalesce into this behavior – psychological, political, economic, educational. But looking back, the way we used to cover shootings did not give that impression.

I like to think we’re better at the larger context, at downplaying the sensational, and at showing this is not a sudden break, a psychotic break – not a break of any kind – but is instead carefully planned and orchestrated. And then maybe we can have public discussions about what underlies the violence, be aware of the signs and address the problems before such tragedies occur.

Beyond the motivations, we also teach journalists their choices matter: how and what kinds of stories they choose to run, what kinds of photos they choose, where (and if) they place the killer’s name, and they need to be careful that headlines are simply factual.

We no longer want to focus only on the sensational aspects of what the shooter did.

That obsession with the sensational creates a contagion for all the other liminal personalities out there. There are definitely people whose personalities are more fragile and they are more susceptible, and highly suggestible. We don’t want to recreate another Columbine.

We don’t want to create a celebrity event. We don’t want to glamorize the shooter. We don’t even really want to give much coverage at all to the shooter.

Think of the way that New Zealand’s Prime Minister wouldn’t even utter the name of the man who shot people at the two mosques. She refused to give him that satisfaction.

There is a real feeling afoot that maybe that’s the direction ultimately even news coverage in this country needs to go.

Personally, I’m a little resistant to not naming people charged with serious crimes, but there’s a difference between naming people charged with serious crimes, and outlining specifics of their background, versus doing in-depth deep-dive pieces that give a kind of celebrity status to these people, largely at the expense of the victims.

Now, we make a genuine effort to put victims’ names first, to run photographs of people who die rather than those who kill, and to offer profiles of those who lost their lives as real people, and not just as statistics.

If the balance is going to tip one way or the other, let’s tip it in favour of kindness, empathy and understanding for people who were wholly innocent.

Romayne Smith Fullerton is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies who uses a feminist cultural studies approach to considerations of women and/or minorities in mainstream media, journalism and popular culture.