Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Opinion: How Should Media Decide Which Mass Shootings To Cover?


There was a mass shooting in central Florida last week, and you may not have heard about it. Many national news outlets barely mentioned it. We were one of the programs that didn't cover it at all. Now, part of that decision-making - the body count. Five people were killed in Sebring, Fla., when a 21-year-old man shot five women in a SunTrust Bank. Four were bank employees, and one was a customer.

Writer Carl Hiaasen writes about this in his most recent Miami Herald column. Hiaasen lost his brother to a shooting last year at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. Welcome to the program.

CARL HIAASEN: Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: Now, there have been many shootings since the time you lost your brother in Annapolis. What was it about this one that made you write this column?

HIAASEN: Well, it was close by, first of all. I live in Florida. I have my whole life. And I know Sebring a little bit, and it's a small town. But second of all, it was - you know, it was an execution-style killing that was horrific in every way. And the fact that it got so little attention spoke to the desensitizing of the national conscience on this kind of crime, which is a shame. And it's - part of it is human nature. You see enough of these headlines that you read the headline, and you stop there. And part of it is just wanting to look away. And that we can't afford to do.

CORNISH: You write, God help us if this is what we've become - numb to home-grown slaughter unless the body count hits double digits. If you were an on-duty editor - right? - and had heard about a shooting, how would you decide whether or not to cover it, how much space or airtime to give the story?

HIAASEN: You know, if it were up to me, they would all be covered as expansively as the shooting in Annapolis where my brother and four others at the newspaper lost their lives. And that got a great deal of attention at the time because the shooter had targeted journalists, and I think it made it a more newsworthy story in some editors' minds. But the truth is that every shooting like this should be covered. I would have covered it as a major story. I certainly would have covered it more than whatever Roger Stone was babbling about that morning, you know?

CORNISH: There's also a school of thinking about covering every shooting further desensitizes people.

HIAASEN: Well, it might. What is the option? You wait for the body count to get in double digits. Do you wait for there to be a classroom of children involved? What makes one killing less newsworthy than another? If it was an ISIS guy who walked into that bank, it would have been the lead story for days and days and days. This is just another angry, white, male loser who had access to a weapon. And so it becomes routine. And the fact that we even think of it as routine is obscene. But to not cover it would be hiding a level of tragedy that happens almost every week to somebody and somebody's family. So that would be the most irresponsible thing a journalist could do.

CORNISH: Do you think that more people are starting to ask this question? I know for communities of color who often feel like crime and killings are overlooked...


CORNISH: ...By the media, they've felt this for a long time.

HIAASEN: Absolutely, with total justification, with total justification. And I think, as the family of someone who died that way and as having met many, many others, I think there is a sense of singular purpose and commitment that every life does matter. It's important that we're slaughtering each other in this way that we have to contemplate regardless of the age of the victims, the color of the victims, the occupation of the victims.

The shooting in Sebring - four of them were bank workers who were there. They were made to lie down on the floor and executed along with the customer. How can that not be a major news story? How can that not affect anybody who's ever walked in a bank to put their paycheck in a bank account? I mean, it hits home. It should hit home.

CORNISH: It sounds like what you're asking is for the media to think about these stories differently when they first break, right? Not should we cover this, but why wouldn't we cover this?

HIAASEN: Exactly. If we don't shine a light on it and write about it and react with some humanity and horror every time it happens, we'll never get past it. We'll never get better as a society.

CORNISH: You wrote that your brother would want you to write in the strongest words that what happened at the SunTrust Bank was every bit as horrifying, heartbreaking and newsworthy as what happened in his newsroom in Annapolis. Now that you've had an opportunity to do this writing, how has it helped you reconcile with his death?

HIAASEN: Well, this is the second time I - you know, I've written about it. It took me a couple months after he was killed. I mean, I don't know that - I didn't write it to help myself, and I don't know that it does. That pain never goes away. And waking up every day thinking it was a nightmare - I don't think that ends for the families and loved ones of any victims.

And what Rob would have wanted - and I knew he felt because we talked about it after Parkland. We talked about it after Sandy Hook. We talked about it after the Pulse shootings - was that every one of these is a tragedy on almost an inconceivable scale. And you can't rate them or put them in order. I mean, he would say look; just because I was an editor and columnist who got killed, my death isn't more important and newsworthy than a bank teller in Sebring, Fla. I know he would want me to say that as strongly as I could, and I tried.

CORNISH: Carl Hiaasen, thank you for speaking with us and for sharing your story.

HIAASEN: Well, thanks. Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: Carl Hiaasen is a Miami Herald columnist and best-selling writer. He spoke to us from his Florida home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.