Thursday, December 16, 2010

The gunman didn't SNAP—that's important, NBC

"Why did he snap?" Meredith Vieira asked.

That was her opening sentence of the #2 story on The Today Show this morningabout Clay Duke, the gunman who fired at a Panama City school board meeting and killed himself last night. In case we missed the point, "Why did he snap?" was emblazoned across the screen.

NBC missed the point. So did every news organization that used that word today.

Gunmen "snapping" is a fundamental misconception about these shooters. "Snap" suggests a sudden, instantaneous urge by the perp to grab a gun and wreak havoc. It hardly ever happens that way.

Talk to any shrink, cop or educated journalist who works these types of cases, and they will bristle at that term, and then explain how it's nearly always a gradual descent. It is rarely an instinctive, emotional reaction to one particular event. It is a slow burn.

Whoever wrote that headline for NBC didn't pay much attention to its own story, which reported that there was strong evidence the shooter had planned his stunt in advance.

That is the norm. The definitive study on school shooters, completed by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, found that in 93 percent of those cases, the shooter had planned in advance. Sometimes, the planning was just a few days, or even less. In just over half the cases, it went on for at least a month.

(I'm most familiar with the school shooter studies because of Columbine. But I've worked with FBI hostage negotiators and others in the field, and there are similar studies with similar results on other types of media-centric perpetrators.)

Our concept of these perps suddenly going off the rails is deepened by the reports we often hear in these cases: that very few people saw it coming. That just meant the perp was hiding his anger, sadness and misery. Some or all of those feelings are typically burning him up inside. Depression is not always, but usually a major factor.

We need to face what's really going on with these gunmen. The Today Show should know better by now. News outlets should be debunking these myths, not re-instilling them.

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