When somebody picks up a gun and takes it into a crowded area to kill people, the world quickly asks why. This search for answers naturally happens in the public, on Twitter or Facebook, in side conversations, and in news media. The press is here to add meaning to any situation, from a city council meeting to mass shootings. But as reports following last week's killing of 10 people at a school in Santa Fe near Houston suggest, news media fumble when reporters attempt to link the a mass shooter's violence to mental health.
Let’s look to KXAS-TV (NBC 5) as an example, with this story published the day after the shooting, headlined, “In Deadly School Shooting, a Confession, but Motive a Mystery.”
It starts by pegging the news on Sadie Rodriguez, the mother of Shana Fisher, who was among the 10 people killed by Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who opened fire during first period. Rodriguez told The Associated Press that her daughter had turned down Pagourtzis several times when he asked her out.
“He continued to get more aggressive,” she told the AP, as quoted in the NBC 5 story. From there, the story goes on to cite other possible reasons for the shooting. No mental health professionals speak in the story to help bridge the gap between confusion and the public understanding of what happened. And that is plaguing the public's understanding of mental health issues.
“So that tells me they are trying to give context, but what’s not being paid attention to enough is, when you place information at the top of the story, you’re telling the reader, the viewer, the audience, that is what is most important,” says Jacqueline Fellows, a former reporter and a journalism professor at the University of North Texas.
Problematic reporting has appeared in other recent stories, too. In the search to uncover why 23-year-old Mark Conditt terrorized Austin in a series of bombings, leaving two dead, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Conditt was struggling with his sexual identity and his religious beliefs. The Dallas Morning News picked up the story shortly after. Both of the stories cited police, who mentioned his alleged gayness and religious struggles in the context of a search for answers. Neither of the stories quoted or even referenced mental health, gay rights or religious voices.
Fellows took to Twitter over the weekend to criticize the Chicago Tribune, among the national publications, for flubbing of the shooter’s rejection narrative. She says it’s one thing to include what the mother said, but to frame the whole story around one development is irresponsible.
“Our words have power,” she tweeted.
The Observer asked Fellows to scan the NBC 5 story to see if her tweet applied to news outlets in Dallas.
“That’s an example of dramatizing a news event that may not be the cause of the event,” she says.
Fellows assigns a great deal of blame to the news industry’s production pace and staff reductions that have plagued newsrooms as revenues have declined over the years. Fewer reporters have to get stuff on the fly, especially in a story like this, when what seems like the whole world has its eyes on Texas.
But there are still people to talk to. Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and scholars from various universities are available to talk to reporters, to lend their expertise on big stories.
“We can’t find one person?” Fellows asks.
Not having these sources at the ready, she says, is a problem that manifests itself during big stories. The reporters may not have the time to find a subject-matter expert, but if they took the time to develop sources ahead of time, they could have them available during breaking stories. Mass shootings could be a beat these days.
“A newsroom can plan for another mass shooting,” Fellows says.
John Dornheim, the president of the Texas National Alliance on Mental Illness, says it’s unfortunate how so much reporting on mental illness is done after mass shootings.
“People who are mentally ill aren’t any more violent than people who aren’t,” he says. “It just seems like they’ve been in the news, and so people assume then that maybe everybody who is mentally ill has a violent tendency.”
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He says the public doesn’t have a firm grasp on maintaining one's mental health, on how one's mental health can debilitate or on the ways we can treat our mental health issues. Media images of mentally ill mass shooters only drive a wedge further on the issues, guaranteeing the stigma associated with mentally illness remains.
“[People] see the face of a person who is deranged,” Dornheim says. “They don’t see their next-door neighbor.”
Fellows was a news reporter in Nashville when she was 29 years old. She broke up with a guy she had been dating for about six months. Within 24 hours, the man had killed himself. For years, she blamed herself. A long time passed before she accepted that he killed himself for a combination of reasons. Today, her work as a critical scholar producing studies and papers on media coverage is infused with her personal struggle. And she is a watchdog for young women like Fisher, who is cast, at least in some news stories, to be a possible reason for the country’s latest mass shooting.
“It’s not my responsibility, and it’s not any woman’s responsibility, to take care and make sure that somebody else does not commit a violent act,” Fellows says.