The Real Fake News: Motives for murder

Matthew Tannam-Elgie explores the media frenzy that follows trauma and tragedy

In 2003, Gus Van Sant directed a rather idiosyncratic film called Elephant. The film has no conventional plot, the script appears to be improvised and teenagers are followed around their school by an omniscient camera as they go about their day-to-day routine. The only thing “filmworthy”, for the want of a better word, that occurs is a traumatic shooting by two students which results in several people being murdered.

The subject matter was all too recent at the time of Elephant’s release; the 1999 Columbine highschool massacre, which left fifteen people dead (including the perpetrators) and twenty-four injured, was still fresh in the memories of Americans. “Columbine” has become a byword for similar atrocities in many countries, a broad term that encompasses familiar tales of misfits gone mad who unfortunately had access to guns.

One of the things that makes Van Sant’s film so memorable is that it refrains from offering a definitive reason as to why such carnage took place in the quiet suburb of Littleton, Colorado. The idea that it happened simply because the perpetrators were “misfits” is given no more credibility than other potential motives. Various scenes play out that encourage a cinephile’s speculation as to what may have triggered the students to commit such a violent act, but no stamp of auteur approval is placed on any of them.

It’s as true to reality as we can get. After a deplorable crime, many people assume a motive without looking at the situation objectively. One of the agents that inadvertently encourages this is the media, with opinion and fact often being spliced together in the whirlwind of disorientation and shock that follows a trauma.

A variety of authors, journalists and media outlets have noted the inaccuracies surrounding the reported motives for the Columbine shooting, as well as for other tragedies. Dave Cullen, who wrote a book about the massacre after ten years of research, was quoted last year in Business Insider as saying that “most of the initial reporting was wrong” when it came to the killers’ motives. Cullen, and others, have written that the notion that the shooting took place simply because the perpetrators were bullied outcasts is inaccurate. However, it is a notion that is still seen as fact by many. The media, regrettably, has had a role to play in the blind credence many people have given to that idea.

After a gunman killed twelve people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, the Guardian ran an opinion piece by Andrew Gumbel that highlighted two things that can happen after a crime; a hungry media ignores facts to report on whatever distortion comes their way, and fringe groups exploit the crime for their own ideological purposes. In this way, we see the potential for a news story to become tainted with false motives following a tragedy.

The infiltration of fringe groups into the news can contaminate public opinion, leading people who usually would not listen to such groups to accept motives that simply were not there or were barely significant. This, of course, can be fueled by a lack of fact-checking. Everyone wants answers, and a respectable mainstream news source may leap on an “answer” without realising that it originated from one of these fringe groups.

The obvious, but vital, point to make is that sources are so important when researching a current or historical event. The media is usually quick to satisfy the public’s craving for knowledge after a horrific incident, and this hastiness creates serious factual errors and misreported motives. In other words, it creates genuine cases of fake news.