“No-one was prepared for this”: Prague shooting spotlights media ethics

Last week’s mass shooting at a Prague university shocked the nation and made global headlines. It also sparked a discussion on how the media should cover the perpetrators of such crimes. Martin Bartkovský, editor-in-chief of the weekly Reflex, got involved in the debate, calling on the media not to name the killer or piece together his story.

“When the shooting started, we were pretty much in shock – the whole newsroom. But once the shock faded away we started to work. And the first thought I had about the mass shooting was that we can’t publish the picture or the name of the shooter.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“Because I read some studies, I read articles, about American mass shootings and I came to the conclusion that we can’t promote the shooter. We have to focus on the information – if he’s alive, if he’s dead, if everybody’s OK, how many casualties are there – but not focus on the shooter."

But what is the harm of naming him? Or what is the harm of trying to work out or reconstruct what could have been his motivations?

“I’m not an expert. I just read some studies – and I trust them. So I think that there is a danger of copycats. If you show his name, show his manifesto, and even if you show videos of the shooting, you can motivate people to try it themselves.

Martin Bartkovský | Photo: Czech Television

“And the police stated days after that there were some people on social media writing stuff like, Now it’s my turn. That can hurt the victims, it can hurt the families of the victims.

“You know, the Czech Republic is small country and Prague is a small city. I was there half an hour before the shooting. I’m not saying it because I’m a hero or I was afraid of my life. No, I’m saying it because Prague is a small town and everyone has been near the place, so it affected us all.

“It was an attack on us all, so if you keep saying the narrative of the shooter, you are hurting pretty much everyone.”

Generally speaking, how do you think the Czech media did in terms of how they reported on the story, which was the biggest story of the year?

“Yes, it was. It’s the greatest tragedy since World War Two. But I’m not sure, because I was in a tunnel of my own newsroom, my own people.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“So I’m not sure how the media covered it. I know that a lot of media started referring to the shooter. They published the full name, the picture, the story, even the village – some reporters were near his hometown, which I think is harmful and wrong.

“But in general I think we are making a precedent here, because no-one was prepared for this. We didn’t have some inner code or code of ethics on covering a mass shooting.

“So we were pretty much on our own. Even in our publishing house we were arguing between editors and bosses about what we should say and what we should keep secret… not secret, but not to say those things, because it’s harmful.”

One thing you said was that journalists should not go to the home town of this killer and report the typical stories we read about how he was quiet or said hello, or whatever. But at the same time, do you understand the instinct of the media to find more and more ways to cover this story? Because there is a huge appetite for information.

“Yes, sure. We are fighting with social media, we are fighting for readers, for clicks, for money.

“But if a tragedy like this happens, you have to choose whether you are an influencer or whether you are a journalist. And if you are a journalist, you have some code. You are setting the boundaries and you should think about that.

“I understand people’s urge to go there, to speak to the neighbours. But I don’t want it. I don’t want to do that. I think that there is a boundary and we should start setting it right here, after this massacre.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“We should say that the neighbour doesn’t tell you anything about it – you just keep promoting the shooter. You can’t have better information from neighbours, because they practically didn’t know him. They didn’t know what he had in the basement, that he had, like, 10 rifles at home.

“They were like, He was a shy, quiet guy who always said hi, hello, thank you. It’s always the same.

“There is an argument that people have to say these things out loud, that it’s therapeutic for them. But my opinion is, Don’t say it to journalists, say it to your psychiatrist or somebody – work on your mental health.

Photo: Czech Television

“And if you are a journalist, don’t try to be a policeman or a psychiatrist. Because you’re not. You should focus on the story, you should focus on the victims and the families.

“You should talk to the families – if they want to say something, you should give them space to say it. But you shouldn’t push them too hard and harass them and ask them for more story, because it’s really traumatising.”

Do you think that has happened? Have the families been harassed by the media?

Memorial site in front of the Faculty of Arts building | Photo: Iveta Vávrová,  Czech Radio

“I’m not sure if that has happened. Yesterday I read an article about how there were students going to the faculty to pick up their own stuff and there were journalists waiting at the door and asking them questions, and they were traumatised by it.

“So that happened. But I’m not sure if someone was harassing… maybe harassing is a strong word, but I’m not sure if anyone contacted the families and asked them for more story.”