Not Calling a Spade a Spade: Inaccurate Media Portrayals of Mass Shooters

Image Illustrated by Nate Beeler for the Columbus Dispatch.

If you google “what is a lone wolf,” 14 million results will appear. The first answer is a definition from the dictionary: a person who prefers to act or be alone. As you continue to scroll through the results, more often than not it is used as a character trait to describe mass shooters.

On Oct. 1, Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old from Nevada, opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel into a crowd of concert goers. Paddock killed 58 people and wounded almost 500.

Dylann Roof killed nine black people and injured one on June 17, 2015 during the Charleston church shooting.

Paddock’s brother, Eric Paddock, described Paddock as “just a guy...Someone who went on cruises and played a $100-a-hand video poker.” In an interview with CNN, Joey Meek, a friend of Dylann Roof’s, remarked that Roof desired to begin a race war.

American media is obsessed with immortalizing its mass shooters. The methodology behind this sensationalism begins by calling the shooter a “lone wolf.” As more details about the days leading up to the shooter’s attack emerge, the narrative begins to shift toward one of “just a guy” who may have suffered from a mental illness. The saga continues with interviews from family members and stories from the shooter’s childhood. These emotion evoking methods of reporting begin to make media consumers feel sympathetic for these mass shooters.

Euphemisms like “lone wolf” and “loner” work to prevent us as media consumers from seeing these shooters as they truly are. Yes, they may have preferred to be alone and committed these crimes on their own, but they can also be terrorists, especially in the case of Roof.

Terrorism is defined by Merriam-Webster as the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion. Roof didn’t learn how to hate blacks out of thin air. We all know the history of American freedom was (some would argue still is) exclusive to whites.

Roof killed nine black churchgoers with the intention of being a martyr for white supremacist terrorism. But, the the definition of a terrorist is only remembered when the killer’s skin is darker than a paper bag.

Here are the image results from a Google search of the word “terrorist.” Primarily images of Islamic extremism define what a “terrorist” is. (Screen capture by Amina Lampkin).

Here are the image results from a Google search of the word “terrorist.” Primarily images of Islamic extremism define what a “terrorist” is. (Screen capture by Amina Lampkin).

Media outlets replay the same gruesome footage until they can find another shocking image to plaster across our televisions and iPhones. Once they run out of live footage, they show us various photos of the shooter. These images come from family scrapbooks, friends, and social media. We see a lot more images of the shooter than of victims.

Now, don’t get it twisted: I’m not advocating for the the bludgeoned bodies of the victims to be on my screen. But as much as often as Roof’s mugshot was shown during CNN’s breaking news segment, familial photos of the nine victims should have been displayed twice as much.

The sensationalism of these mass shootings disgusts me. We pay attention to every horrific detail of a case, yet can’t seem to agree on legislation to prevent these events from occurring in the future. Mass shooters are memorialized for entertainment and channel ratings, while the legacies of their victims are forgotten.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of mass shootings, as well as how it intersects with race and media coverage, here are few links below: