Published: Dec. 11, 2023

By Joe Arney

American thought leaders are often invited to give talks abroad to share their expertise with the world, whether that’s in biochemistry, law, design or business.

Elizabeth Skewes recently returned from an official visit to Serbia, where she was invited to discuss an area where the U.S. truly leads the world—mass shootings.

This past spring, the Balkan nation was rocked by mass shootings on consecutive days, and journalists struggled to tell the stories in ways that were respectful of victims and loved ones, without inadvertently glorifying violence.

“I don’t care that he was a Boy Scout. How did he get the weapon? What signs were missed about why he did this?”
Elizabeth Skewes, associate professor, journalism

“A lot of the questions I got from reporters went like: Well, so-and-so reported on this, so we had to, also,” said Skewes, an associate professor of journalism at the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the first shooting, at a school in Belgrade, the shooter had a handwritten list of targets, “and the police chief held it up on television,” she said. 

You may have cringed when you read that. But because the chief was a significant newsmaker, reporters felt they had to run it, “because everyone else would,” Skewes said. “I’m more reminded of my grandmother telling me, well, if everyone else jumps off the cliff, would you?”

From campaigns to carnage

In fact, it was a changing approach to how journalists started covering mass shootings that sent Skewes down the path of researching this grim topic. Her dissertation work focused on the way the media covers elections—how and why journalism gets done, and how it might be done better—but two crimes in the mid-2010s powered her pivot into violence. 

The first was in the aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting incident at an Aurora movie theater, when a news anchor told viewers the station would no longer refer to the shooter by name—reflecting a change in how the media often ended up humanizing shooters by speculating as to why they committed their crimes. Around the same time, a Longmont woman driving home from a doctor’s visit was hit by a driver making a sudden, illegal left turn; while she survived, the unborn child she was carrying did not. 

“The story that did not get covered very much at that time was the fact that the driver of the car who hit her was arrested that day for his fifth driving under the influence charge,” Skewes said. 

“I think the media needs to find ways to cover stories that don’t further traumatize victims unnecessarily. But if we’re not going to talk about shooters, if we’re not going to talk about people who are arrested for a fifth DWI, then we can’t talk about the systemic problems that prevent us from having conversations about whether we need stricter laws, bans on assault weapons or newer programs to identify people in real trouble who are maybe in danger to themselves or others.” 

A changing approach

Headshot of Liz Skewes.Skewes said in American journalism, some of the most harmful tropes—humanizing the shooter, or sharing photos of suspects toting guns—are falling out of favor, though photos of the shooter in the Lewiston, Maine, attack earlier this fall bucked that trend.

“They thought he was still at large, so, OK, use his driver’s license photo,” she said. “You use the photo of him with the gun and it winds up on those darker places on the web, and can turn him into another icon for people who have ill intent.” 

In the 1966 Texas Tower shooting, news coverage focused on Charles Whitman’s upstanding background, “which does nothing to tell me how we prevent this going forward,” Skewes said. “I don’t care that he was a Boy Scout. How did he get the weapon? What signs were missed about why he did this?”

As more and more of these stories get written, coverage has improved, she said, but there are few playbooks for the media to follow. For instance, a Washington Post report last month showed, for the first time, crime scene photos from Uvalde, Texas; Las Vegas, Parkland, Florida; and others where a shooter used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Out of respect for victims, such photos are often unshared by the media, but the images can make the weapon’s destructive potential real in a way that narrative cannot. 

“Actually, in my presentations in Serbia, I used some images out of the Las Vegas mass shooting, of the bodies in the field,” Skewes said. “I was struck by how powerful the images are—but also by the fact that the people who most need to see things like the AR-15 photos are not exactly Washington Post subscribers. Maybe FOX needs to run them.”  

Skewes’ visit was coordinated with the U.S. Speaker Program, which collaborates with American embassies and consulates worldwide to connect professional foreign audiences with experts, and the U.S. embassy in Serbia. As part of the itinerary, she visited more than a dozen newsrooms, organizations and universities in the country.

Her research isn’t any easier to share than it is to conduct, including extensive interviews with reporters to understand how they covered these tragedies. But Skewes wants her work to mean something. 

“I think this work matters,” she said. “And I want my work to be meaningful—and maybe just create even a tiny, incremental improvement in something.”

A how-to for covering shootings

Unlike other first responders to violent acts, journalists often don’t have any training to help them navigate a devastating environment like a mass shooting. Here’s what Elizabeth Skewes shares with students in her classes, and what she emphasized in speaking with Serbian reporters last month. 

FETI approach. The forensic experiential trauma interview technique involves asking sensory questions, which evoke strong memory, with loose follow-ups, as opposed to a “then what happened?” line of questioning. “Linear questions are harder for them cognitively, because the parts they can’t recall are the parts their brain is trying to protect them from,” she said. 

Cede control. When you approach a victim or survivor, explain who you are, what you’re doing and when your story might appear. Ask permission to interview, instead of starting to write things down. And if they say no, walk away. “I suggest leaving a business card and saying, ‘Well, if you ever feel like talking, please reach out.’”

Be informative. The people you interview may not understand how long it takes for your story to appear, where it’s published, who can see it and so on. Explain that reporters may return to this subject for years after the fact, and that their published comments could be reused.

Hit the brakes. Before you include that sensational photo or quote—or post something on social—are you adding context? Or is it something with limited news value that will re-traumatize survivors and loved ones? “Don’t publish because everyone else is doing it,” Skewes said. “Use it as a teachable moment for your audience, as to why it’s not right to use it.”