In recent years, school shootings have been one of the more trending issues not only in the United States of America, but around the globe as well. More often than not, school shootings have the power to create waves of moral panics that leads extensive public panic and reaction that revolves around youth culture and violence. Therefore, the significance of media violence and its impacts as projected in school shootings should not be underestimated or taken lightly.
To explore what does school shootings say about the significance of media violence, it is important to consider how school shootings are reflected and how they affect the work of media industries and educational institutions. 'Media violence' in this case refers to the ways in which violence is represented in the media. This paper will attempt to do so by identifying the possible cause-and-effect relationships within the link between school shootings and media industries. The American cases of the 1999 Columbine Massacre and the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007 will be mainly referred to examples throughout this paper.
Muschert (2007) stated that agenda setting and media framing has given the mass media the ability to maintain the salience of a news event. It is worth noting that agenda setting is regarded as an organization's functional process in emphasizing what should be significant to the public (McCombs & Shaw, 1972: 177). Hence, the media has the power and means to build a particular event into a media disaster in which it refers to the main importance and the role of the media in mediating and subsequently framing tragic events (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010). These media disasters allow the audience to follow the 'media marathon of the disaster coverage' (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010). By changing attention over the course of an event through time and space frames, the mass media is able to retain the salience of a news event which would be depicted in the following examples (Muschert, 2007: 354).
On the 16th of April 2007 in the early morning, 32 people were killed while several others injured in the Virginia Tech massacre (Hauser & O'Connor, 2007). It was branded as one of the most deadliest shooting rampage in American history, with the perpetrator being a South Korean student Cho Seung-Hui who was believed to be suicidal and mentally-ill (Markels, 2007). As soon as the tragedy happened, it was no surprise that media companies from across America flocked to the scene in hastening fashion to cover the story and participate in the news race - television stations and news agencies were all competing to be the first to report in order to get maximum audience (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010: 19). Since school shootings are generally high in news value and according to the political economy theory, such newsworthy events are capable in generating higher readership and viewership which will eventually translates into higher revenue (Golding & Murdock, 1991: 17). After all, churning and earning profits is the ultimate goal for any business entity just like the media corporations in this case (Golding & Murdock, 1991: 17). Furthermore, negative news that tends to promote extreme perspectives of a potential problem has long been recognized to 'sell' better than positive ones (Burns & Crawford, 1999: 157).
Consequently, those who were not able to compete would attempt to frame the event from another perspective or cook up stories which is evident in the case of U.S. News framing Virginia Tech as a continuation from the 1999 Columbine shooting as they had no hard news to deliver (Boyle, 2007). Despite having insufficient information being made available to them, these news agencies will not miss out on the opportunity to cover newsworthy stories such as school shootings. Thus, this may lead to unethical journalistic practices such as misrepresentation, exaggeration and falsifying information in order to keep up or stay ahead in the news race. Journalists may attempt to fill the missing blanks in the news hole which may result in rash judgments (Pompilio & Robertson, 1999: 10). For instance, there were various reports on speculating Cho's identity from being a Pakstani to Chinese national, only to later reveal that Cho was actually South Korean (Kellner, 2007). Such inaccurate and irresponsible reporting was being criticized and raised questions on violating the professional ethics of first checking the facts before publishing them into the reports (People's Daily, 2007).
The situation is further worsened for the traditional forms of media facing threat from citizen journalists who includes people playing the active role of producing news and broadcasting it through social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook (Boyle, 2007). The media corporations, due to recent developments in social media and digital communication technology, have difficulties in regulating information flows and thereby blurring the boundaries between them and other actors (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010: 18). Thus, not only do the media companies compete with one another for news coverage but with the citizen journalists as well, marking a shift from deadline journalism to online journalism (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010: 19). This can be illustrated in the case of CNN using VT student Jamal Albarghouti's video footage capturing the deadly shooting which was caught on his mobile phone (CNN, 2007). There are also other desperate attempts by media agencies such as the creation of Facebook accounts to attain the contact information of VT students or starting an online memorial just to encourage other students in posting stories (Johnson & Clarke, 2007). These actions taken by the media agencies further shows the unethical journalistic practices and the invasive and inappropriate methods used just to publish more information on the shooting (Johnson & Clarke, 2007).
For the purposes of better ratings and audience maximization, NBC News decided to air Cho's media antics which contained disturbing speeches (Gizbert, 2007). Not only was this move considered unethical, but it was deemed insensitive by the police and families and they heavily criticized NBC News' decision to broadcast it (Johnson & Clarke, 2007) despite an open letter being sent by the American Psychiatric Association (2007) to urge the network from broadcasting the video. News production has the tendency to make use of the existing public fears for school shootings and highlighting the dramatic elements to maximize the audience (Muschert, 2007: 353). For example, there was media speculation about Cho having accomplices who are still on the loose (Kellner, 2007) for the purposes of viewership retention - paranoid audiences were following the network as a means of being updated with the latest news. Once again, the journalistic ethical conducts has been compromised for the greater good of profit-oriented organizations.
One of the impacts of the Columbine school shootings is the victimization of students who are actively engaged with Goth subculture or destructive video games and violent movies (Long & Wall, 2009: 281). This presented the politicians with the occasion to be seen dealing with crime (Burns & Crawford, 1999: 157) in which they actually chose to blame the influence of satanic and Gothic music instead of the real and existing problems of gun control policies in the American society - further reinforcing the prejudice and fear towards the victimized (Rall, 2012). This may eventually change the relationship between the students and teachers as the latter will now see the former as potential threats to safety and may worsen the alienation of those whom are already out casted by the society (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010: 27). Moreover, this is certainly not helped with the constant news report on the shootings revolving around the juvenile superpredator crime myth narrative (Muschert, 2007: 354).
The media primarily functions as an advertiser and definition of 'moral panics' and identifying 'folk devils', at the same time coming up with suggestions and support responses to them (Long & Wall, 2009: 231). In extreme cases such as school shootings, this may result in policy changes or the creation of new ones such as the tightening of security levels in education institutes, as well as the stricter policies in regards to gun control in America (Rall, 2012). Thus, the media has the almighty power to change and influence various institutions in the society such as economic, educational, cultural and political (Sumiala & Tikka, 2010: 18). As can be shown through the aforementioned examples, there are indeed relationships regarding the impacts that the school shootings have on the media corporations due to their economic nature. The school shooting event ultimately altered the reporting practices of the media corporations through engaging in unethical professional conducts just for the sake of audience maximization and thereby earning more profits. Therefore, there should be a set of media coverage guidelines on how certain avoidable elements of future school shootings should be broadcasted and ethical reporting practices that the media agencies and journalists can adhere to in order to prevent the grave mistakes that they have made in the past (Preti, 2008: 548).