Tag Archives: journalism

Interview With Adam Lanza’s Father Makes Clear: We Need a New Approach to School Shootings

I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, since it ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. I read about it before I read it, in various articles attempting to summarize its more shocking elements: Peter describing Adam’s crime as “you can’t get any more evil,” or saying he sometimes wishes his son had never been born. But if you read the whole piece, you come away with a much more complex and nuanced picture of what happened in this family, and in a situation which has no easy answers or living scapegoats.

We can speculate — at length — about whether Adam’s parents should have paid more attention or done more. Much has been made of the fact that Adam was prescribed different therapies and even antidepressants, and the fact that both Adam and his mother, Nancy, appeared to be uncomfortable with these options and failed to stick with them. Plenty could also be made of the fact that Nancy kept Peter at a distance after their divorce — a distance he didn’t appear to fight.

But the more I write about these topics, the more I think it’s impossible to determine which one of 100,000 troubled adolescent boys (to pick a random number) — autistic or no, depressed or no, schizophrenic or no, angry or no — is going to plan and commit a mass shooting in a school or elsewhere. Obviously, there are the rare instances where one of them posts or emails a warning, or divulges his plans in a fit of confidence or attention-seeking. But in most cases, even in hindsight, the “warning signs” aren’t clear — or aren’t common only to other fellow perpetrators. They’re qualities other people have, too.

We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings, and the narrative surrounding that incident is still very similar to the one surrounding Sandy Hook: wayward, perhaps emotionally disturbed teens. Angry music and violent video games. Access to guns. A lack of comprehensive mental-health options. Parents who didn’t recognize the signs that their child might be turning violent, either because the signs were well hidden or because it was difficult to tell those were the ones that would obviously lead to murder. The narrative hasn’t changed because we still don’t have answers, and we may never have the answers we’d need to actually identify potential perpetrators and prevent more school shootings.

Given that, what COULD we do to minimize the number of these incidents, or protect students and school staff if they happen? Much better mental health services, sure. De-stigmatization of mental health issues. Massive amounts of education and outreach for parents of troubled kids. None of this would be aimed at singling out potential perpetrators, but to make sure any kids in this category have a broad and comforting safety net, which is something pretty much all teens need, but particularly those who might otherwise be prone to extreme acts of violence.

What about the guns? Whether or not guns are allowed to minors is almost irrelevant; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had an over-18 friend purchase guns for them. Adam Lanza learned his way around firearms from his mother, but he was also 19, a legal adult able to purchase his own weapons, when he committed his crimes. There are Constitutional issues associated with limiting access to guns, and there are varying opinions on gun control, but I think someone who is willing to go into a school and open fire is going to find a way around whatever gun laws we have. We could turn schools into gun-free zones, but there’s likely ways around that.

At the end of the day, the New Yorker article suggests we — Americans, parents, educators, and journalists all included — need to think and write differently about school shootings, the ones that have happened and the ones that have yet to happen.

So. Where do you think we should start?

Should the news industry be regulated?


Regulation for the news? Some say yes. Photo by Flickr user NS Newsflash.

Here at Backward Messages, I spend a lot of time writing about how journalists get it wrong, whether it’s playing up someone’s Wicca or Satanism faith or linking mass shootings with violent video games or heavy metal music. In some cases, they’re not getting it wrong by accident, but willingly focusing on “sexy” angles that will get more people to read or view a story, even if journalists are bending the truth in the process.

Over in Britain, where many journalists have been charged with crimes in the large-scale phone-hacking scandal at News Corp., a judge has recommended some changes in the way news agencies are run.

This week, Judge Brian Leveson delivered a long-awaited report sparked by British journalists’ misdeeds, and one of his top recommendation is for the news industry — in Britain at least — to establish a regulatory agency to keep reporters on the straight and narrow:

The British press should be regulated by an independent group supported by law and with the power to fine … Leveson said he was not recommending that Parliament set up a press regulator, but that the industry should create its own, which would be backed by legislation to make sure it meets certain standards of independence and effectiveness.

News International, a subsidiary of News Corp., responded with support for the idea in a statement, saying, “We accept that a new system should be independent, have a standards code, a means of resolving disputes, the power to demand prominent apologies and the ability to levy heavy fines.”

Rightly so, there are concerns that such an agency could stifle freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are highly valued in Britain even without the backing of a doctrine like the First Amendment in the U.S. But the idea is a reminder that, other than laws against libelous or slanderous reporting, the news world is very lightly regulated, and journalists get away with a lot — even though their task is to properly inform the populace.

So, what do you think? Should the news industry — in any country — be regulated? If so, should it be regulated by peers, by the government, or by someone else? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Satanism, Santeria, or Sensationalism?


Is a torched chicken Satanic? Photo by Flickr user adactio.

Step 1: Patrol the local cemetery at night.

Step 2: Find a patch of burned ground.

Step 3: Find a dead, burned chicken.

Step 4: Find an empty bottle of cologne nearby.

Step 5: Conclude Satanism is involved.

Wow. Do they teach this stuff in the police academy?

Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this particular bit of deductive reasoning. Maybe the fact that this incident took place near Halloween is what set the police officer’s Satan-radar off; I’m not sure. The article is much less about the actual incident in question and more about a string of supposedly Santeria-related activities involving everything from dead animals to human skulls and, er, coconuts.

Because, of course, a bunch of police guesswork is the same thing as proof of an “upswing of occult activity in Bridgeport, much of it related to voodoo or Santeria.”

Unfortunately, one thing it doesn’t include is any information from actual Santeria practitioners, or Satanists for that matter, to discuss such things as a) their actual religious/spiritual practices, b) whether those practices routinely involve harming animals, and c) how these groups feel being mistaken for each other. (Try calling a Catholic a Mormon sometime, or vice versa. After all, they both believe in Jesus, right? Just try. See what happens.)

As I’ve said here before, Satanists rarely, if ever, practice animal sacrifice. Those who do harm animals under the banner of Satanism probably aren’t dedicated practitioners, but dabblers who don’t know what they’re doing, and are following horror movies or misguided web sites or books — they aren’t the real deal.

Santeria does, at times, involve animal sacrifice — and, by the way, it’s protected under the Constitution after a 1993 Supreme Court vote. It’s part of the religion, practiced rarely and carefully, and shouldn’t be touted as ooky-spooky “occult” ritual and certainly not “Satanic.” However, it’s hard to say whether these particular incidences in Connecticut were the work of a devoted Santerian, since I’ve been told that just leaving animals lying around — or, in this case, leaving one of them alive and half-burned, isn’t considered a respectful part of their religious practice.

In other words, it’s wrong to peg such acts on a particular faith without a much deeper knowledge of the incident in question, and who perpetrated it. Right now, all they’re doing is making Satanists and Santerians look bad, and that’s not right.

Violent video games, Satan, and murder (again)


Did video games make Peter Charles John Jensen, left, shoot his wife? Did Satan make Christopher Roalson, right, stab an elderly woman to death? If not, why are police, prosecutors, and the press mentioning it?

On Sept. 25, police in Jacksonville, Florida, charged Peter Charles John Jensen with murder. Allegedly, he apparently was “playing violent video games under the influence of some type of drug,” police said, before he got into an argument with his wife, Karina, and shot her. A witness — who was playing video games with Jensen — reported the shooting, and fled when Jensen pointed the gun at him. Karina was dead when police arrived and found her.

A few days earlier, a Hayward, Wisconsin, jury found Christopher Roalson guilty of first-degree murder. Roalson, along with accomplice Austin Davis, broke into 93-year-old Irena Roszak’s Radisson house and stabbed her to death in 2009. They have called it a “thrill kill,” and Davis told the court that he heard screaming and someone saying “Hail Satan” coming from Roszak’s bedroom the night of the murder. Roalson also reportedly claimed he was “Satan’s son” as he and Davis left the house that night.

As you can see, the headline in the Jensen case is:
Man killed wife in Julington Creek shooting Saturday, police say
Police: He played video games and took drugs before the slaying.

And for Roalson, the lede in a Duluth newspaper:
A Sawyer County jury on Friday found 30-year-old Christopher Roalson guilty in the murder of 93-year-old Irena Roszak, a case that officials called a “thrill kill” with satanic overtones.

Coverage in both cases has been sketchy and doesn’t point to a clear, legitimate motive. Maybe that’s why everyone has latched onto these sensationalistic but meaningless details. I can point to Jensen’s glazed demeanor and compare it to that of (allegedly schizophrenic) Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Holmes, but that’s guesswork at best. How we can get through an entire trial, in Roalson’s case, and not be clear on why he killed an elderly woman, is beyond me — especially since you have to prove premeditation for first-degree murder, and premeditation suggests a motive.

Instead, we’re left with violent video games, drugs, and Satan: scary things many people don’t understand, but are happy to consider valid motivations for killing — as valid as any other impetus we also might not understand. We’re also left with the impression that these things might make anyone else commit murder. Better take them away before that happens, right?

Expert: Youth violence is complex, media doesn’t cause violence, reporting on it is tough


A mural in Chicago’s Logan Square. Photo by Flickr user Zol87.

This morning, Poynter.org hosted a chat with Carl Bell, acting director of the Institute for Juvenile Research and a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Psychiatry and in the School of Public Health, on how journalists can do better when covering youth violence. The chat was prompted by recent coverage of a wave of youth-involved shootings in Chicago.

Most of the time, Backward Messages focuses on all the things that don’t cause youth violence, even though various sources have claimed they do. Things like violent video games, the occult, and heavy-metal music. I also like to look at the ways reporters get off track when reporting on youth crime — and the ways that misreporting leads us to look for the wrong causes.

So when I heard Bell was co-hosting the chat with Poynter.org managing editor Mallary Tenore today, I jumped in to listen, and to ask questions. Here are some of the highlights:

Carl Bell: I have been studying violence since 1976 and I have learned there are several types of violence – predatory violence, interpersonal altercation violence, gang related violence, etc. There is also mob violence, hate crime violence, violence by mentally ill, systemic violence, etc.

Mallary Tenore: As you’ve studied these various types of violence, what have you noticed about journalists’ coverage of them?

Carl Bell: It has been my experience that journalist regularly do not differentiate these types of violence very well and they mostly get portrayed as predatory violence.

Mallary Tenore: That’s interesting … why do you think that is?

Carl Bell: I think that people are often confused with complexity. … I think journalists have a difficult time. They have to report on complex issues, but keep them simple and they have to get past the editor.

Mallary Tenore: Yes, time can definitely a factor.

Carl Bell: Unfortunately, much that is published or reported on has to have a great hook, i.e. something that appeals to the flight, fight, or freeze response in the brain, not the thinking, discernment, wise part of the brain. So, there is a lot of distortion in the media.

Beth Winegarner: Carl, on the topic of mass murder/school shootings, why do you think reporters so often make reference to a youth’s music tastes or video-game habits when describing youth perpetrators of mass violence?

Carl Bell: There are so many ideas that people have for the causes of violence. When we did the Surgeon General’s report on youth violence we learned, based on science, that many of the things we think cause violence do not cause violence at all.

Beth Winegarner: That’s an interesting response, since many people still refer to the Surgeon General’s report. What things mentioned in it don’t cause violence after all?

Carl Bell: The reality is that risk factors are not predictive factors, due to protective factors. So, a lot of kids want violent videos or play violent video games, but the homicide rates are lower than the suicide rates (both are rare), so things protect kids.

To read the full chat, see the Poynter.org and click at the bottom to read the transcript.

Grandma’s corpse theft leads to journalistic horrors


After a body was stolen from a mausoleum in a NJ cemetery, police and the press blamed Satanists and Palo Mayombe. Photo by Flickr user scottnj.

At first, it sounds like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a low-budget horror flick: in late July, thieves broke into the Spinelli tomb at New Jersey’s Greenwood Cemetery, smashed the marble slab protecting a casket, and then opened the casket. They made off with the body of the family’s matron, Pauline, who was buried there in 1996.

But from there, it gets truly horrific.

Headlines describing the theft have blamed everything from cults to Satanists. We might expect this from outlets such as Catholic Online, but even ABC is playing up the “woo-woo” angle:

A satanic cult could be responsible for breaking into a mausoleum and stealing the remains of a New Jersey grandmother who died 16 years ago, police said today.

It goes on from there, because apparently the family believes that a poorly understood and peaceful religion could somehow be responsible:

“We did a lot of research and my husband found a group online that uses bodies in some kind of a ritual and they need the bones for their ritual. The group is called Palo. There were some bodies found in Newark and Woodbridge and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, speculated to have been used by this group,” [granddaughter Paula Lafollette] said. “Who else would want a body?”

To research this claim, did the reporter talk to a respected leader in the Palo Mayombe Community? No — they went to “occult expert” Rick Ross. Surprisingly, he actually provided some factual information about Palo:

“The likelihood they would go into a mausoleum and drag out a body seems remote. Usually these hybrid religious groups [including Palo] use chicken and other animal bones,” Ross said. “Typically these acts end up being individual perpetrators not linked to an organized group.”

Still, it’s disturbing that these folks believe that “Satanic cults” exist — despite no evidence — or that Satanists dig up bodies. Or that Palo Mayombe is the same thing as Satanism. Or that there’s anything wrong with Palo Mayombe or Satanism. Or that their freaked-out notions made it into several national news reports.

To me, it seems extremely unlikely that someone would break into this tomb completely at random. Sure, stealing a corpse from an above-ground setting is easier than digging up a grave. But why Pauline Spinelli? Whoever took her body, as awful as it was, had to break through a metal chain, smash a marble slab, pry open a casket, and then smuggle out her body. That’s an Olympic amount of effort.

Could they have wanted HER body, specifically? Did she have any enemies? Did her family make anyone angry? Obviously this is all speculation on my part, but it seems more likely that someone took her body to upset her family than that a “Satanic cult” or Palo practitioners picked her at random for rituals that either don’t exist or don’t use human bones.

I’m not saying Paula or her family deserved this, which is obviously and understandably causing them grief. I’m just saying it makes no sense to blame faiths and practices for whom stealing a grandmother’s bones is as abhorrent as it is for the Spinelli family.

While we focus on “Satanic” angle, killer walks free


Was Arlis Perry killed in 1974 by a Satanic cult in Stanford University’s Memorial Church? Some still think so. Photo by Flickr user daviduweb.

Rumors of murderous Satanic cults always make for a compelling scary story, even if they can’t be proven. Maybe that’s why the Great Plains Examiner has a new article today about Arlis Perry, who was killed almost 40 years ago in a church at Stanford University. Her murder remains unsolved, which always stokes the fires of the imagination.

Scant details have led people to pursue the “Satanic cult” theory:

An autopsy later revealed that Arlis Perry was killed by a blow from an ice pick punched just behind her ear. The way she was laying in the chapel led detectives to believe it was a ritualistic killing.

“The way she was laying” is pretty vague, but there are speculative sketches online, likening Perry’s position to the shake of the unicursal hexagram — which, by the way, isn’t Satanic; in fact, it’s used to protect against evil.

Also? The ice pick isn’t a particularly “Satanic” tool.

Reading through the history of the case, it’s a pretty big mental stretch to call some of the players — if, indeed, they were players — “Satanic.” Speculation in this California murder suggests it could have been the work of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, or someone else involved with the Process Church, or there’s even a hint that the Holy Order of MANS was involved somehow. There were also rumors that Perry had attempted to convert some members of a North Dakota Satanic cult to Christianity… and this is why one of them tailed her to California and killed her?

I’m not familiar with any cases committed by Berkowitz in California — not to mention that he recanted most of his “Satanic” claims after he was jailed. The Process Church is only associated with Satan because he’s part of their beliefs — but that doesn’t mean they’re killers. And despite what it says in the Great Plains Examiner story, the HOOM folks didn’t wear upside-down crosses; they were a humble order working with Christian ideas. That detail alone makes me question the validity of the rest of the reporting — and it should make other readers doubt it, too.

Perry had a fight with her new husband the night she died. After the fight, she walked to Stanford, where she prayed in the church and was found dead a few hours later. Apparently later DNA analysis failed to yield a suspect. I have to assume that her husband was investigated — after all, 44 percent of female homicide victims in New York State, to take a random example, were killed by their partners. Still, it was more than likely the killer was someone she knew — and someone local.

The problem with such coverage — despite the fact that it’s speculative, filled with errors, and not very trustworthy — is that it leads readers to think in a particular way about a crime. Readers are potential witnesses; do they remember something? Did they see something suspicious that might be related to the crime? If they’re led to believe a certain context for Perry’s death, they might discount something they saw if it doesn’t fit that context. There’s a reason juries are selected, in part, based on how “tainted” they are by news reports — because such coverage can introduce a bias that can lead the wrong person to be convicted of a crime.

As long as people think a Satanic cult killed her — and there’s no evidence this Satanic cult exists outside people’s imaginations — her killer will remain free.