Atomizing a tragedy

A proposal for improving coverage of mass shootings in America.

The editorial team at Circa has considered how to cover hundreds of tragic events since we launched in Oct. 2012, including far too many mass shootings. But this isn’t a conversation about guns, mental health or policy. It’s about Circa’s evolution as an entity designed to inform, and how the proliferation of this type of tragedy has prompted us to examine the media’s responsibility and evaluate our approach.

We can’t just ignore mass shootings, or the terror inflicted by the randomness of these events. Public locations where they often take place, such as on a school campus, are relatable and selected to inflict maximum carnage, so mass shootings become major news stories.

Circa’s editorial team does our utmost to provide users with a high-quality overview of the world at any given time and we think we can cover mass shootings differently. We think there’s an opportunity to cover them better.

When a mass shooting happens, the trend among media outlets has been to cover the event and then shift focus to the sensationalized aspects of the perpetrator. The victims, mourning and any heroes that emerge often become a sidebar as attention turns to the deranged worldview of an unstable person.

The raw tragedy of mass shootings warrant our attention. The perpetrators do not.

Why are so many mass killers’ names known when victims and heroes are forgotten? Why do we salivate over the rantings of a crazed person? We in the media tout our sensibilities, yet rush to help warped individuals accomplish their goal of gaining infamy while ignoring the implications of giving them a platform. We’ve been inadvertently lionizing the wrong people in our coverage.

Even though the writings and images of an unhinged person grab attention, the media has a role in addressing the problem of mass shootings. And that means moving away from some of the elements that may be enticing, but don’t add to the forward progression of a news story. Some types of information provide macabre entertainment at best. At worst, it inspires future rampages by disturbed individuals and an apathy toward the problem in the public sphere.

Circa editors have debated if there’s actual value in naming the killer and we’ll continue to mull over how much biographical information is needed to create a quality representation of the story. Sometimes a mass killer’s background helps explain an unfathomable act of violence, and how a person can stray so far from society. The shock factor created by the criminal or the crime, however, should be contrary to the mission of a true news organization.

After a killer’s crimes are committed, their role in the ongoing story has ended. This is especially true if the perpetrator dies. If they survive, the subsequent trial becomes its own story about crime and punishment. While we can’t ignore acts that become news, Circa has decided to regain control of the narrative.

Like all newsrooms, decisions are made at Circa that guide how stories are covered. Our small team of human editors scour sources of information to identify crucial elements needed to understand a bigger story. We strive to avoid bias by focusing on the foundation of news items — the facts. But choices still exist about what bits of information are pertinent for creating a story meant to reflect the ongoing nature of a news event.

After the facts are established about the event, Circa is going to focus on the victims. We’re going to shine the light on the heroes that save and comfort lives, not the disturbed people who take them. We want to inform our users about the response of communities, both at the immediate level where a tragedy takes place and any larger themes that emerge.

Unfortunately two instances this month have necessitated Circa to work on this strategy, with shootings taking place in Nevada and Oregon. Circa decided not to name the deceased killers or lend credence to their homicidal actions by reporting on lurid elements that materialized. We don’t think anything valuable was lost by this approach. Our updates focused on the victims and survivors, on steps taken that may have saved lives, and how communities gathered to mourn those lost.

Gun violence in Chicago has also presented a challenge. We don’t want to diminish the problem, but it wouldn’t be constructive to report on every incident. Shootings in Chicago are an almost daily occurrence. Our storytelling approach allows us to update shooting events in an ongoing story about Chicago violence, but the thrust of the story speaks to larger issues. Followers of the story will be updated on violent incidents in the context of the overall trend.

Circa provides the sources we use for transparency and to give our users the option of digging deeper. For the mobile news space we’ve pioneered, our eye on core facts is ideal for accurate, reliable and rapid news consumption. We also understand some readers want more details and encourage our users to visit the sources we cite for added depth. While resources are plentiful for those who want greater insight into the mind and crimes of a maniac, Circa hopes to set a better example for how these stories can be covered.

Evan Buxbaum is a Deputy Editor at Circa, a mobile-first news company that breaks news down into the most important facts and gives readers the ability to follow stories they care about.