Humans are social creatures, and for most of us, any attention is good attention.
As a classroom teacher of teenagers, I have learned this through some painful trial and error. The bigger the reaction a student gets out of me when they do not meet a classroom expectation — i.e. the more openly frustrated I become — the more likely I am to see that behavior again. The more the drama, the more often the reoccurrence.
You and I know this, of course, but for some reason, the “well-informed,” media-literate population of our country does not. For some reason, we are still piling up negative attention on truly terrible actions and then being surprised by the consequences.
Recognizing the role that negative reinforcement plays in repeat behaviors, the parents of some of the victims of the Aurora theater shooting in July 2012 began what they hoped would be a movement in a healing direction. They created the group called “No Notoriety” and began working to convince media outlets to stop aggrandizing the actions, words, names and faces of mass killers.
The core belief of #NoNotoriety is that after initial reporting on the incident, the killer should be referred to only by pronouns or abstract references like “the shooter.” Victims should be elevated equally, and the gory details of the tragedy should not be brought up at every sensationalizing opportunity.
They hope that these changes might allow for families to heal, as well as minimize the number of copycat criminals who seek that prized, though damning, infamy.
In many ways, their position makes absolute sense. If American media stopped repeating the names of killers, stopped crystallizing every moment of their rampage, and stopped celebrating every jury selection and courtroom verdict with size 105 point type, then maybe individuals desperate for that kind of sick validation would not find so much appeal in such inhuman behavior.
Some disagree with the premise of No Notoriety. They remind us that our First Amendment requires that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” So the question is: Could this movement lead to some kind of regulated moral censorship?
If the answer is “yes,” then it would undoubtedly be a move in the wrong direction. Any hindrance to the accurate reporting of events in our nation creates a crack in the foundation of our democracy.
How’s that for a dramatic metaphor?
But there is another way to shift the national discourse about mass shootings without further government involvement.
The solution, in a great cliché, is literally at our fingertips.
Based on the way today’s for-profit media is funded largely by advertising exposure, if we, the “well-informed,” media-literate population, refuse to read the stories that create infamy, then they will have to change the headlines. No government regulation required.
Now, I know there are many of you are still uncomfortable with this idea. You protest that it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the world, and what about that censorship and freedom of the press?
But take a minute to acknowledge that the press imagined by our constitutional wordsmiths bears almost no resemblance to today’s media. Their media was a printed newspaper aimed mainly at literate white men. It was not constantly being updated in their vehicles, their bathrooms or across from their family at any given meal of the day. They never imagined the possibility of receiving instant updates about the brutality of terrorist organizations halfway across the globe, or being given access to blood-soaked crime scene photos with no more than a casual flick of a finger.
The reality of “the press” has changed so much, in fact, that if we do not reassess our relationship with it, we can no longer consider ourselves well-informed about anything.
This is no easy task. As a reluctant member of the Millennial generation, I know that I struggle with an addiction to consuming staggering amounts of information simply because it is there, and, because well, I should know this. We internalize from a young age the supposed truism that knowledge is power, and then we use that to justify every click and share that gains us a few extra seconds of attention in the staff lounge, or 10 faceless “likes.”
But in support of #NoNotoriety and in direct contradiction to the norms of my generation, I challenge us to consume information only with intention. Just because it is written does not mean we need to know it. Just because we see the headline, does not mean we have to click it.
If knowledge is power, then ask yourself what power are you gaining from this knowledge, and what power are you giving?