Between the nonstop briefings and discussions on gun control, mental health, LGBTQ rights, Islamophobia, and "radical Islam" since the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando Sunday, one news segment stands out from the rest as a testament of the need for change. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper read the names of all 49 Orlando victims who have been identified live on air Monday, along with a small blurb about each person. The short but moving tribute reminds the country of what needs to be the focus of how our coverage of these events needs to change.
The deficiencies in the regular coverage of the Orlando shooting is made stark by this segment. Cooper specifically addresses the reasoning behind the decision not to name the shooter or show his picture, so as not to glorify his actions or grant him the infamy he may have been searching for by committing this terrible attack.
As Cooper says in the segment, "We want to try to keep the focus where we think it belongs, on the people whose lives were cut short." It's a powerful defiance of the trappings of the 24-hour news cycle, which demand ever more information to draw ratings, even when that information perhaps should not be released for public consumption.
Cooper isn't alone in this stand — FBI director James Comey pledged not to say the shooter's name, so as not to grant him “some twisted notion of fame or glory.” That glorification of mass shooters is part of a "contagion effect" which perpetuates mass shootings by "planting the seeds of ideation in at-risk individuals to commit similar acts," according to a recent study conducted at Arizona State University. By keeping the focus on the victims instead of the shooter, the media could cause a tangible change in how frequently mass shootings occur.
But the reason Cooper's actions are most because he was allowed, and allowed himself, to get emotional about the tragedy on air. Mass shootings are often covered in a very dispassionate, removed way which doesn't typically give reporters such a space to show emotion. As a gay man himself, this attack on a gay club was likely meaningful and devastating to Cooper, and seeing him express that emotion here was a powerful symbol of solidarity with the gay community. Allowing him the full range of emotion, telling the story not just as a news anchor but as a human being personally affected by the tragedy, is much stronger way to communicate the reality of the shooting than just through the facts.
Cooper's segment is a serious reality check and an important lesson in media literacy. Outlets which keep the focus on the victims rather than sensationalizing the shooter shouldn't be exceptions, but rather the standard. The victims deserve more attention and public recognition than the shooter, and honoring them the way Cooper did is a toward creating that shift.