The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 11, 2012

Media should forgo psychiatric analysis in shooting cases

The best thing to happen to the victims of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting was the Olympics … and the Oak Creek, Wis., temple shooting.

That got accused shooter James Holmes off their TVs and out of their faces.

Every time a nut job commits one of these horrible acts, media consumers are beaten to the ground with incessant coverage that is predictable.

Many mass shooters are isolated loners who have left behind calling cards suggesting violent tendencies. Neighbors thought they were weird. They lost a job, a girlfriend, a scholarship or fill in the blank.

The bottom line is they are nobodies who want to be somebodies, and the 24/7 news cycle gives them just that. Dead or alive, no one can stop talking about them. Teachers know that desperate people will do just about anything to get attention; it doesn’t matter whether it’s positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.

Years go, a Monroe County man held his family hostage. The media showed up and dutifully reported what happened. The sheriff told me that after the man let his family go, he sat at the kitchen table chain smoking cigarettes. He topped off the night by chewing the top off a glass beer bottle — glass and all, which I dutifully reported.

He made his initial appearance in magistrate court. While we were in the outer room waiting for his hearing, he must have figured out I was a reporter. With a Confederate do rag wrapped around his head, he turned to his family and said, “I made this place famous. I put this place on the map.”

Why do people do such things? Because they are nut jobs.

One of my students at Shepherd University got several phone calls from the national media after the Virginia Tech massacre because she had gone to the same high school as Seung-Hui Cho. “What was he like?” they wanted to know. She didn’t remember him, let alone have any insight into why he committed the atrocity.

She came to my office, visibly upset, to tell me about it. She didn’t want to be any part of that story and didn’t understand why she was being harassed. Keep in mind she was a mass communications major.

I covered a bizarre sexual abuse case in which the defendant told such an outlandish story of why he touched a little girl that all of us in the courtroom were left speechless. The judge later remarked, “I don’t understand why somebody would do something like that.” He added, “Let me take that back. I don’t want to understand because that would make me like him.”

That’s just it. While the role of journalists is to establish context and help people make sense of the day’s news, some of the news just doesn’t make sense. On a bad day, journalists have enough trouble doing their own jobs without taking on the task of psychoanalysis.

I don’t care how lonely Holmes was. I feel sorry for him and his family, and I feel equally as sorry for his victims.

What I care about in this and other cases is that police do a thorough investigation and identify the person to whom the evidence points, that the judicial system conducts a fair and impartial trial, that a jury renders a verdict based on the evidence and that a judge imposes the appropriate sentence.

Loneliness doesn’t justify mass murder, and I’m tired of media coverage that suggests it somehow does. Call a spade a spade and move on to something that I do want analyzed and explained — and that can be.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2012 by Nerissa Young

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