What a Mass Shooting Expert Wants You to Know
A Digital Shrine
Jackie Schildkraut’s Facebook wall is filled with posts describing the fallen, a digital shrine. Christopher Roybal from Colorado, “could draw people in with an infectious smile.” Carrie Parsons “had a contagious giggle.” Patricia Mestas was “a mother of three, a grandmother of eight, and a great-grandmother to one.” Jessica Klymchuk “had a special way of connecting with children.”
Schildkraut’s seemingly random collection of the deceased is not random at all, but a series of stories honoring the victims of the Las Vegas shooting that occurred on October 1, 2017.
Everything went silent
The media coverage started as expected: the breaking news, the hour-by-hour updates, the detailed timelines, the total victim count, followed by human-interest stories of survivors and heroes.
A day later, thousands of paper and online news outlets around the world shared facts about the shooter—his name, his background, his possible motive, his picture.
Suddenly, the gun debate took center stage again. When politicians sent their thoughts and prayers, much of the country agreed those sentiments weren’t good enough: it was time to act. The Senate switchboard lit up. Celebrities spoke out. Sons of Anarchy star Ron Perlman tweeted: “We are rushing to our own funerals. Think and pray on that!” In New York City, the action group Gays Against Guns led a march of more than one hundred people from Union Square to Times Square. Across the country, in California, a gun violence protest erupted outside the office of Rep. Darrell Issa. Americans were angry and scared; they demanded change. And the media covered every moment of their outrage.
But then the media outlets went silent.
A busy year
It’s been a busy year for Schildkraut, who has studied mass shootings for seven years, making her one of the nation’s foremost experts. When the assistant professor of Public Justice at State University of New York at Oswego isn’t teaching, she’s in the interviewee chair of a national or international news program or inputting new data in spreadsheets already full to the brim with data collected from past mass shootings. Occasionally, she packs her bags and sets out on the lecture circuit, raising awareness and correcting the common fallacies about mass shootings.
Because Schildkraut had become the media’s go-to girl following any mass shooting, she was able to witness firsthand the stunningly short duration of coverage following the Las Vegas shooting—an event racked with so much violence and carnage, even the media themselves had labeled it “the deadliest mass shooting in American history,” a phrase Schildkraut despises. “By labeling something like this, it is signaling to others that there is a benchmark to surpass,” she argued in a recent interview for this article.
"I had to do something."
Schildkraut was infuriated. If the interval between mass shootings seemed to become shorter, then so did the time span of the media’s coverage. “It took nine years to get from Virginia Tech to the Orlando shooting, and just sixteen months to get from Orlando to Las Vegas,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why we, as a nation, weren’t still talking about something so tragic.”
Still, it’s our country’s treatment of the shooting victims—their humanity so easily wiped away, the fullness of the lives so quickly flattened and reduced to a statistical footnote in America’s dark history—that really got to Schildkraut. “I began to realize that in the majority of media coverage and even in conversation among members of society, victims were often talked about as a number. That’s when I knew I had to do something,” she said. So she set out to rehumanize each victim. “(I thought) if I could highlight who they were, I could make people understand their loss was so much more than an increasing death toll—it is a loss to society.”
Noticing the trend prompted Schildkraut to act. On October 15, she posted the first story—that of Hannah Ahlers from Beaumont, California, a 34-year-old mom of three, “the type of person who could light up any room she entered.” The post included photos of Hannah. One photo showed her on a hiking trip with her family, her young son clinging to her back, smiles all around.
Other stories followed, one a day, in alphabetical order of the victims’ last names. Every night, Schildkraut paused from teaching and studying statistics and focused instead on the stories behind the data—researching names; reading articles; slowly piecing together lives, one discovered artifact at a time.
“What was really important to me was to not use the same photos that are being flashed across television screens and newspapers,” said Schildkraut. “I wanted to get deeper into their lives beyond stock imaging, so I pulled pictures from their own social media or from people who knew them.”
The victims’ stories struck an immediate chord with her online friends, many of whom also worried that the country was too quick to forget. “The impact from Jackie’s #RememberTheirNames campaign cannot be over exaggerated,” said Amy Darabos, president and cofounder of the Epic Coalition and editor in chief of the Nasty Women Project, when interviewed. “She has put the point of emphasis exactly where it belongs—on the victims and the senseless epidemic of gun violence encompassing America.”
Katherine Phillips, a 71-year-old retired teacher who regularly shares Schildkraut’s posts, echoes Darabos’s sentiments. “The fact that Jackie—who knows more about mass shootings than anyone else in this country—has chosen to spotlight the victims’ lives out of everything else she could share with us, really says something,” said Phillips, in an interview. “It tells us that the most important thing we need to know about mass shootings is that the victims were people, and their stories deserve to be heard.”
The No Notoriety Campaign
Telling the victim’s stories is only part of what Schildkraut believes should be a national overhaul in the way media reports mass shootings. She also supports the No Notoriety campaign.
Started by Tom and Caren Teves after their son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora shooting, the No Notoriety campaign advocates, among other things, limiting media coverage of the shooter.
“The idea behind the campaign is to deny the perpetrators the fame they are seeking by limiting or withholding their name and image,” said Schildkraut. “These stories are sensational enough without constantly plastering the offender’s photos across screens or repeating their name over and over. Once it (the shooter’s identity) is out there, it is out there—it doesn’t need to be looped so heavily. Denying these individuals the attention they crave potentially discourages other would-be perpetrators by showing them that they will not get the attention they want. In turn, this can help save lives. In exchange, more focus should be on the victims and survivors and helping to tell their stories and get them the resources they need.”
They were taken too soon.
It's December 10, and Schildkraut still has six stories left to tell. Her friends, followers, and the social media pages that regularly share the stories know to anticipate her post in the evening, around 10:00 p.m. (EST), but they don’t know how the story will go or whose story she will tell. Sometimes the accompanying picture is that of a face lit up with a smile; sometimes, a pose on a beach or friends hugging. Sometimes it’s a mother and son, a husband and wife, an army veteran or a teacher, or a student or a chef. The stories are of all kinds of people from different walks of life, with only one thing in common: they were taken too soon.
“They were extraordinary people who led amazing lives,” said Schildkraut. “Their ability to make contributions to this world were cut short—but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't honor and celebrate what they were able to accomplish.”
When asked if she plans to extend this campaign to include the stories of other victims of mass shootings, Schildkraut replied, “If it makes a difference, then absolutely.”