Source: Author image of the Columbine Memorial

We Don’t Need More ‘Terror on Repeat’

Chicago Policy Review
By David Chrisinger
09 Apr 24

Co-authored by David Chrisinger, Executive Director of the Harris School of Public Policy Writing Workshop and advisor to the Chicago Policy Review.

In the first two months of 2024, more than 5,000 Americans were injured or killed by guns in various forms of violence, including more than 50 mass shootings. While damning, these statistics have become but mere numbers within our national narrative around gun violence, which has been stuck for the last several decades in a cycle of shock, grief, and political stalemate. In response, Washington Post recently published a report titled “Terror on Repeat: A rare look at the devastation caused by AR-15 shootings.”

According to the paper’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, the project was designed to “advance the public’s understanding of mass killers’ increasing use of this readily available weapon…while being sensitive to victims’ families and communities directly affected by AR-15 shootings.” By showing readers crime scene images, videos, and other media without much context from eleven mass killings that took place in the United States from 2012 to 2023, the Washington Post said it hoped to help readers better understand “the full scope of an AR-15’s destructive power.”

That this image could evoke the smells and images of a battlefield in Afghanistan, where this student spent nearly a year, appears to be precisely the Post’s point.

“I can smell this photo,” says a veteran infantryman and graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy after reviewing an image of an empty, blood-stained classroom. The photo was taken at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed with an AR-style weapon on May 24, 2022. That this image could evoke the smells and images of a battlefield in Afghanistan, where this student spent nearly a year, appears to be precisely the Post’s point. By publishing “Terror on Repeat,” the Post turned what is unimaginable for many readers into a gut-wrenching, foul-smelling reality for all.

But to what effect?

Was there anyone out there who wasn’t already convinced that the AR-style rifle in the hands of someone who’s a danger to themselves and to others can do tremendous damage in a short amount of time? Was the Post’s previous “interactive” article drawn from autopsy reports from school shootings not jarring enough to shock the conscience of its readers? Could there realistically have been anyone reading the Washington Post who didn’t yet realize that mass shootings leave nothing but trauma in their wake?

We think not.

Some will agree with the Washington Post and argue that publishing crime scene photos from mass shootings serves a legitimate public interest: that Americans have the right to be fully informed about significant events—mass shootings included—when they have far-reaching consequences for the community. They will argue that such graphic reporting can best convey the severity and magnitude of the incidents, providing a more realistic portrayal of the impact on individuals and the community. They will say that reporting like “Terror on Repeat” can foster a greater sense of urgency for addressing underlying issues related to gun violence better than photos of anguished students in ColumbineNewtown, and Nashville.

Americans are psychically numb to gun violence, and the type of reporting we see in “Terror on Repeat” can make the hopeless even more despondent

While it’s almost certainly too soon to tell whether the paper’s reporting will have such an effect, there is evidence to suggest that it won’t. In an era when a majority of American adults have a first or secondhand connection to gun violence and gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children, the problem we face is not a lack of understanding, but rather a lack of hope. Americans are psychically numb to gun violence, and the type of reporting we see in “Terror on Repeat” can make the hopeless even more despondent, according to research exploring the dynamics of collective action and social mobilization in response to crises.

A 2003 study, titled “The Mobilizer’s Dilemma,” highlights the tension between the empowering effects of crises—which certainly can galvanize people to take action—and the challenges inherent in sustaining collective efforts over time. What the researchers found was that while crisis messaging like that featured in “Terror on Repeat” can effectively expose readers to a problem and raise a sense of urgency, this type of messaging can also backfire by making the situation appear hopeless. “Crisis messages tend to undermine belief in the efficacy of collective action,” the researchers write, “unless coupled with messages that reinforce a sense of efficacy.”[1] By regularly highlighting problems and leaving out responses to them, journalists and policy communicators run the risk of conveying a false sense that people haven’t tried to fix things, or that we don’t know how to do any better.

In addition to leaving readers with a numb sense of hopelessness, publishing graphic images without any sort of framing or guideposts to help the reader understand the context around gun violence in America runs the risk of alienating and potentially retraumatizing survivors and their families. We first heard of the Washington Post’s project not from policymakers spurred to action, but rather from Kimberly Garcia, whose daughter Amerie, a “little diva with a heart of gold,” was killed three weeks after her 10th birthday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. “Please, do not share the Washington Post,” she wrote on X. “My daughter being taken from this world wasn’t fair to begin with…Amerie, her classmates, & her teachers don’t deserve this.”

Further, this type of reporting risks providing kindling for the imitation of mass violence. In the 2016 epilogue to his book ColumbineDave Cullen warned the media about its complicity in providing fodder for potential mass shooters’ idolization of violence. By focusing on the “savage nature” of these crimes, Cullen argues, the media has allowed shooters to crack the code for their own desire for notoriety. “If we care about ending this,” he continues, “we in the media need to see our role as clearly as the perps have. We did not start this, nor have we pulled any triggers. But the killers have made us reliable partners. We supply the audience, they provide the show.”[2]

If crime scenes won’t mobilize us, perhaps more human-centered, evidence-informed, and solutions-driven storytelling might.

We feel, as do many Americans, that we have no time to waste in getting the narrative right to support the growing community of survivors and to prevent future gun violence. We also believe that if crime scenes won’t mobilize us, perhaps more human-centered, evidence-informed, and solutions-driven storytelling might. Through this type of storytelling, we can build solidarity with communities that are most impacted by gun violence and meaningfully activate the right readers to help enact effective gun violence prevention strategies.

One promising approach to shifting the conversation back into a more helpful direction is to better contextualize the landscape of gun violence across the country. Research shows that Gen Z readers in particular are hungry for data and historical context to better understand the landscape of gun violence, gun access, and public safety in this country. After viewing “Terror on Repeat,” readers may be surprised to learn, for example, that while AR-style rifles cause tremendous devastation in mass shootings, that sort of violence comprises less than 5% of total gun deaths in America. Most gun deaths result from suicide, followed by homicides. Further, handguns account for many more injuries and deaths than AR-style rifles do. Focusing on mass shootings enables us to understand their destructive impact but situating them in the broader context of gun violence allows us to identify the systemic patterns and failures that have allowed this violence to ravage all of our communities, especially communities of color.

Another promising approach is to refocus media coverage and policy discussions on evidence-based solutions and interventions that have proven effective in reducing gun violence. While “Terror on Repeat” highlights a “broader pattern of violence” it doesn’t illuminate the factors that led to this pattern. More complete coverage may examine factors such as access to firearms, mental health support, community interventions, and the role of social determinants of violence.

People don’t change simply because we point out their problems. They need models for change, and we owe it to them to provide a path forward.

By highlighting how we got here and what works, journalists and policy communicators can help steer the conversation toward actionable strategies that can save lives. People don’t change simply because we point out their problems. They need models for change, and we owe it to them to provide a path forward.

Framing the conversation around solutions rather than focusing on what can turn out to be divisive political debates has the bonus of bridging ideological divides and fostering bipartisan cooperation. By emphasizing common goals such as public safety and community well-being, key stakeholders from across the political spectrum can come together to support policies and initiatives that have been proven effective in reducing gun violence. At the very least, this type of framing allows readers the permission to make equal space for their collective grief and well-earned desire to understand the facts of how we got here and what evidence is telling us about where we could be headed.

In addition to highlighting effective interventions, we believe it’s essential to elevate the voices of survivors, advocates, and experts who can provide valuable insights and perspectives on the issue. By centering, rather than just “being sensitive to,” their experiences and expertise, media coverage and policy discussions can become more nuanced and human-centered, which we believe will foster empathy and understanding among the public.

Changing the national conversation about gun violence will not happen overnight, but by refocusing attention on evidence-based solutions and amplifying the voices of those most affected, journalists and policy communicators can play a crucial role in driving meaningful change. By highlighting what works and by fostering more constructive dialogue, we can move toward a future where gun violence is no longer such a commonplace tragedy in the United States.

[1] Ion Bogdan Vasi and Michael Macy, “The Mobilizer’s Dilemma: Crisis, Empowerment, and Collective Action,” Social Forces, March 2003, Vol. 81 No. 3, 979-998:

[2] Cullen, D. (2010). Columbine. Grand Central Publishing380.

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