Why did the media and officials get it so wrong when it came to reporting the mass shooting that occurred on May 3rd at the “Vladislav Ribnikar” Elementary School in Belgrade and have they learned any lessons?

The media debacle started a few hours after a student shot and killed nine of his classmates and a school guard. Minister of Education, Branko Ruzic, held a press conference, without providing any real insight into the circumstances that led to the horrific tragedy, presenting the event as a result of “embracing Western values” and naming the internet and video games as culprits. Later in the day, the police chief of Belgrade, Veselin Milic, took an equally dangerous step further. Milic explained in detail the steps taken by the shooter, showing a hand-drawn plan and a list of the names of children the shooter had planned to target. These two moves made by state officials opened Pandora’s box.

Sensationalist headlines followed, along with misinformation about the victims and the suspected shooter. The media also shared details that should not have been made public, including a full name, photographs, and a medical report. Certain media outlets glorified the background of the murderer’s family. They went to the building where he lived, interviewed residents, intercepted neighbours, and wrote about how the suspected murderer was a well-behaved boy. Some even allegedly received information that in a psychiatric hospital the suspected shooter showed no remorse for the crime. Media outlets reported that the only question he repeatedly asked was when he would be released because he knew that as a minor, he could not be held accountable and punished for the crime. Some media outlets said the minor practiced shooting with his father and they shared pictures of the father and son in camouflage uniforms with weapons.  

Mother’s attempt to raise social awareness

The shooting was a shocking event for Serbians and it was not easy to navigate or understand. It is logical then to apply the experiences of others in similar situations. After a mass shooting in New Zealand, the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not mentioned the name of the shooter, reveal anything about him, or give him attention. The media did the same and should act as an example Serbia could follow. Like the media in New Zealand, Serbian media should have focused on the victims not the perpetrator..

One mother bravely tried and succeeded, for a short period of time, to change the initial discourse on the tragedy. Only a few days after the death of her daughter, a mother spoke to Nedeljnik and tabloid Kurir about why it is important to change the narrative of violence prevalent in Serbian society. She spoke about the need to reconsider the school system in the country, which does not teach empathy and solidarity. She initiated the discussion in an effort to stop misinforming the public and instead focus on the surviving children. She attempted to unite Serbian society in solving the problems it has to face. Unfortunately, she did not succeed. Narratives directed from the top of the government divided parents into two groups: those who support the normal continuation of education and those who believe that “Ribnikar” can no longer be a school.

And while some media, to a large extent, reported responsibly on the tragedy with respect for the victims and their families, pro-regime media, pro-regime media were following the government narratives. They included sending guidelines to resume classes five days after the shooting. However, this was a trigger for dissatisfaction among parents of surviving children, many media reported on the parents disatisfaction.and all decent media stood on their side.

Unfortunately, this did not include the national television station RTS, which is one of the few channels available throughout the whole territory of Serbia. For parents of surviving children, RTS did not provide opportunities for them to discuss “live” what is important for the families of the deceased and surviving children. The parents were offered to take part in a recording of the show, which would be broadcast later, but they refused. They had no better luck with the private television Pink, which has a national frequency. When the parents requested an appointment to discuss their demands and grief, TV Pink responded that it was no longer a topic for them.

Culture of pain censorship

It was slightly worse, but in a different way – through suppression by silence – for the victims of the mass murder in two villages near Belgrade, which occurred a day after the shooting in Belgrade. This mass murder, the president of Serbia, very wrongly and tendentiously, wanted to present as a terrorist act. His statement was echoed by all pro-government media, although it was not a terrorist act. The shooting in which eight people were killed and 14 injured was covered by the media very briefly. Unfortunately, the families of the victims had no media contacts so they were unable to inform the media of what was happening with the survivors and the families of those who suffered in Mladenovac.

Dr. Ivana Basic, an emotion anthropology researcher, has an interesting thesis about the two shootings and the role of the state and the media. She believes that the shooting in Mladenovac could have been prevented if May 4th had been declared a day of mourning after the shooting in “Ribnikar” on May 3rd. If a decision had been made on May 3rd to end the school year, it would have prevented the media circus with police departments sending letters to schools and the “creating lists of unruly students” scandal, as well as the false dilemma of whether we need psychologists or police more.

Clickbait competition

Instead of romanticizing the perpetrator of the crime and creating an image that portrays him as a hero, victim, or tormented soul by providing statements from witnesses claiming the perpetrator behaved “abnormally” or “irrationally,” speculating or allowing sources to speculate about the mental state or motive of the suspected perpetrator, the state and media should present facts about the perpetrator while characterizing their behavior as illegal and harmful. And certainly, both in person and on social media, speculation, conjecture, commentary, spreading rumors, and misinformation should be reduced.

To prevent the Werther effect – imitation of previous crimes – the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade issued “Psychological Guidelines for Media Reporting After Crisis Events”. It states that publishing the perpetrators’ photos, their photos next to the victims, or graphic photos/videos from the crime scene should not be done. By doing so the survivors, their families, and the local community can be retraumatized. Instead, the focus should be on showing respect for the victims and survivors, sharing their personal stories with respect for their privacy. Describing the victims and those affected by the tragedy evokes empathy and encourages the public to understand and adopt their perspective.

In Serbia, unfortunately, this did not happen. As the state presented false questions and dilemmas to the public, there was a domino effect of wrong answers and diversion from the facts about the tragedy and the way forward. Following the tragedy, in an unbearable domino effect of false information, it was reported that the history teacher that had been wounded died and that the injured boy who was in the hospital was in critical condition, when in fact he was in a stable condition and preparing for treatment in America. A claim that TV N1 called for the release of the suspect was also false, while social media spread the news that blood donors who are unvaccinated were being sought. The decision of the Press Council regarding the violation of the code of journalism ethic were in vain.

It is interesting, for example, that in the days following the shooting, very few journalists remembered to bring any positive stories from schools. Journalist Ana Kalaba from the portal did so by publishing a story from a Serbian school where students returned from a competition with many awards, and their schoolmates welcomed them outside the school with thunderous applause.

From the perspective of a surviving child’s mother

Dr Aleksandra Bulatovic, senior research associate at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade, and a member of the Laboratory for Philanthropy, Solidarity, and Care Studies, who has obtained a doctorate in the field of criminology from the Faculty of Law, shared her experience from the perspective of a mother of a seven-year-old who survived the massacre.

“It is not unexpected in Serbia for the media to disregard the rules of journalistic ethics and focus on clickbait content. However, it was unexpected that they would not know how to do their job. Instead of doing what is elementary for information-gathering – determining which institutions to communicate with to obtain accurate information and thus immediately detect the problem in the institutional response to the crisis (which continued in its management afterward), the media acted on inertia. They published whatever anyone said, whether with real or false authority,“

Bulatovic told MDI.  

She pointed out that: “The problem of verifying the authority to speak on anything related to May 3rd has continued to this day. Fake institutions and experts who are not actually experts, representatives who are not actually representatives, and solutions that are not actually solutions. The media did not make an effort to thoroughly and responsibly inform themselves about everything important regarding the case, including any comparative practices. They did not show that they knew who was who or who could competently speak on which matter. The media coverage was almost completely based on reporting the feelings and impressions of anyone who wanted to say anything about the horrific tragedy that happened on May 3rd. Simply put, the media showed irresponsibility comparable to the irresponsibility of the institutions. In this way, they only confirmed the deep crisis of Serbian society.”

In the end, as the primary impression of media reporting on the tragedy of May 3rd, it remains that non-regime media represented the families of the victims and the surviving children, while state media constantly propagated a culture of pain censorship. And it is precisely this false makeup of reality, Serbian society, and its media that leads to ruin. This phenomenon is excellently defined with a rhetorical question by Dr Ivana Basic: “Do we need a culture of emotional suppression, a culture of fear and pain censorship, a culture from which love and empathy will be expelled? Hasn’t nurturing such a culture led to these terrible crimes?”

Author: Snežana Miletić

Photo: Chaikom/ Shutterstock