An 'ethics of care' for journalists covering mass shootings

In This Story

People Mentioned in This Story
Ashley Yuckerberg
Ashley Yuckenberg

Before May 24 of this year, much of the country had never heard of Uvalde, Texas. But the horrific incidents of that day catapulted the small city to national consciousness. Its name became synonymous with the crisis of gun violence gripping the United States. In the process, a local tragedy was made part of a sorrowful lineage—only the latest, and fully expected not to be the last, in a string of similar calamities. Yet the 21 lives lost, among them 19 children, were unique individuals whose loss caused unimaginable grief for their community.

The manifold meanings of traumatic events like Uvalde and other mass shootings create thorny ethical dilemmas for journalists, over and above their usual concerns about accuracy and the ideal of non-intervention. Beneath the blinding light of the national stage, there is an ever-present risk that in trying to get the story right, reporters may inadvertently add to the violence’s toxic aftereffects.

In her 2021 dissertation, Ashley Yuckenberg, a trained journalist and assistant professor of business communications at George Mason University, plumbs the ethical quandaries of crisis coverage and provides a framework for guiding journalists through them.

Yuckenberg completed the dissertation, titled “Ethical Implications of Communicating Risk in the Media: A Heuristic for Reporting on Crisis Events with a Focus on Mass School Shootings,” for a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric from Mason. Her research builds upon concepts from late-20th-century feminist philosophers, who argued against ethical absolutism and for an “ethics of care” that considers actions in light of their effect on others. Yuckenberg was also strongly influenced by the 2008 book Horrorism, in which feminist thinker Adriana Cavarero explores the uniquely traumatic characteristics of contemporary violence targeting the most vulnerable (e.g., suicide bombings and school shootings).

But Yuckenberg’s interest in the issue is more than theoretical. “As a K-12 teacher for eight years, I had to take students through active shooter drills, and we had to be aware,” she says.

The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting also touched Yuckenberg personally as a community resident. “The shooter went to high school with me. He was a year younger than me. And one of my friends lost his sister.”

Her research took her to the Library of Congress, where she analyzed a total of around 700 articles about the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Parkland school shootings. Yuckenberg used local newspapers—rather than, say, the New York Times—because their closeness to the affected communities increased the immediacy of their coverage as well as its emotional impact for those most directly traumatized by the event. She opted for print editions over digital articles so she could capture subtleties of journalistic presentation such as the original headlines, selection and placement of photos, etc.—suggestive nuances that can influence how readers interpret the news.

Through the evolution of media narratives, Yuckenberg was able to track how journalistic missteps (which were no doubt well-intentioned) in the wake of the violence distorted the national conversation. On the day of the 1999 Columbine shooting, for example, reporters interviewed traumatized students fresh from the scene of slaughter. False rumors circulating amongst the teenagers ended up being reported as fact, e.g., that the perpetrators had formed a gang called the Trench Coat Mafia to avenge supposed bullying. These questionable accounts, related as part of a breaking news story, helped form a terrifying template of the disaffected school shooter that stalks the American imagination to this day. They also introduced elements into the national discourse that arguably had no business being there, such as the putative role of goth culture in motivating school shootings.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance for reporters covering mass shootings, including a sensible crop of general principles such as avoiding angles and language that could glamorize the carnage, thereby inspiring copycats. Yuckenberg drew upon her journalistic training, as well as her research and theoretical framework, to translate the CDC’s guidelines into a practicable technique for journalists. Just as the “five W’s” are a near-universal reference point for structuring news stories, Yuckenberg hopes her mnemonic device—or, in academic parlance, “heuristic”—will be widely adopted by journalists covering crisis events.

Her dissertation’s “WHIMM” heuristic acronymizes five essential ethical trouble spots for journalists:

Witnesses—Relying on unverified information from witnesses—who may still be in shock—may result in misinformation.

Harm—Gratuitous details about the crimes may satisfy a certain craving for sensationalism among some segments of the public, but can re-traumatize affected communities. Information should be included in stories only if the benefit to society as a whole (e.g., helping prevent future shootings) justifies the potential for emotional distress.

Influence—By indulging the shooter’s desire for widespread infamy, journalists can influence others who feel they have nothing to lose to chase fame through a copycat crime.

Missing side—Offering differing perspectives to contextualize information can prevent harmful misconceptions from forming. For example, facts about a shooter’s psychological history could be offset by quotes from experts clarifying that only a small minority of mentally ill people commit acts of violence.

Missing information—Especially as the crisis event is unfolding, facts usually filter out in piecemeal fashion. Situations change from hour to hour, sometimes moment to moment. This can plunge the news audience, primarily in the affected community, into a state of serial trauma as updates continually arrive. Yet the absence of information can produce excruciating suspense, an emotional trade-off calling for the utmost delicacy.

Yuckenberg’s dissertation was completed before the tragic events in Uvalde. Reflecting on the news coverage to date of this latest school shooting, she renders a mixed verdict. “I think they did a better job than they had in the past with Parkland and Columbine” in terms of focusing on the victims instead of the shooter, she concludes. However, the conflicting and changing reports in the hours and days after the shooting could have been curbed or condensed out of respect for the community.

“If we’re going to have an ongoing debate about how police should be responding to school shootings, it’s important that we have accurate information,” Yuckenberg says. “The more eager you are to release anything that comes through from a source for clickbait purposes or whatever, the more you risk muddying those waters and making it impossible to get your hands on the facts.”