‘Active shooting’ yourself in the foot at Stevenson University

You’d be hard pressed, in this day of Virginia Tech/Columbine/Navy Yard to blame a college for panicking around reports of a potential gunman. But panic is exactly what Stevenson University did today, and blame I will.

screen grab of a web page
Stevenson University issues all clear after panicking region with “Active Shooter” texts.

“Active shooter” they instant-messaged students and blazed in red across their website on the Owings Mills campus that serves a few thousand students. A student had reported a man carrying something that looked like a rifle walking toward campus. Active shooter is something campuses prepare for now, and that part of their response was mostly dead-on. Except the “active shooter” part.

There’s a huge gulf between “maybe a guy with a gun” and “active shooter.” A divide that cannot and should not be breached with words. It’s a gulf wide enough you’d need a gun to hit the other side. You’d need to pull the trigger. No shots fired, no active shooter.

But the word gets clicks, and the news-as-entertainment industry responded in kind with salacious tweets about “#BREAKING: Active Shooter Reported …” or, if they wanted to be cautious put it in scare quotes like it’s all Stevenson’s fault for using the phrase in the first place.


I was slightly proud of the print press at The Baltimore Sun  and The Washington Post for carefully getting it right and calling the situation “gunman” or similar phrasing compared to FOX Baltimore and the wire services that went with the scary sound bite. None of the links gave more than a few paragraphs parroting the university. There was no “there” there.

It’s like conservative governors calling their political opponents “terrorists” – an exercise in bombast and hyperbole that leaches meaning from real active shooter situations by playing on a tired nerve until we cannot know how to respond.

It’s shameful click-mongering by a dying industry desperate for online ad revenue.

You know who you are and why you did the thing you did. Don’t try to defend it. You know what you knew – that there was precious little justification other than click-baiting. Any defense I can imagine rings hollow, but go ahead and try.




7 thoughts on “‘Active shooting’ yourself in the foot at Stevenson University

  • April 2, 2014 at 4:32 PM

    What’s to blame here is the metastasized frothing paranoid hoplophobia that drives such nonsense. To illustrate: Schools suspend kids for chewing a pop tart into the rough shape of a handgun, or for pointing their finger and going “Bang!”, or for wearing any image of a gun on a t-shirt, or for even discussing anything using the word “gun”.

    People, it is this ridiculous mindset (the feminization of America) that has paralyzed Americans’ ability to think rationally, and reduces supposedly logical people to barking Pavlovian automatons.

    Stop it.

    Just…. stop it.

  • April 1, 2014 at 2:49 AM

    I think you are on the mark with SU overreacting, but way off the mark on your criticism of the media. In today’s environment, you do not have the time to fully vet out a breaking news story before breaking it.

    The alert came from a legitimate source–the University and not some student ranting on FB or Twitter. And I agree that it should have said “Possible gunman on campus, shelter in place.”

    But then you lambaste the media for click-baiting? Really? Isn;t that just what you are doing here? Where is the difference? You have ads here that you earn income from as well. Don’t berate a company from trying to make revenue.

    In fact, it appears that there were two “shooters”/students who were hunting in the nearby woods with bb rifles.

    Dear Stevenson Community:

    I am sending this message to all of you to confirm that the Owings Mills campus lockdown has safely concluded. I am certain that you are all relieved that this is resolved and that you can return to your normal schedules. However, we have decided to cancel Owings Mills evening classes and activities. It appears that the incident was caused by two students who had poor judgment of hunting in the woods with two BB rifles near campus. We are proud of the response of our security staff, students and others in acting quickly and cooperatively with our campus alerts. While we are relieved with this safe outcome, this has been a sobering experience for us and our families. This reminds us all of the importance of our “see something, say something” mantra. Nothing is more important than your safety. Thank you for your continued support.

    Kevin J. Manning, Ph.D.

    • Baltimore Post-Examiner Staff
      April 1, 2014 at 5:00 AM

      I think you nailed the entire problem when you said, “In today’s environment, you do not have the time to fully vet out a breaking news story before breaking it.” Really? That’s sad. I guess the attitude is better to be first and wrong than last and right. As Ronnie once said, “Trust, but verify.” We seem to lost the verification these days. We traded that for ratings.

      • April 1, 2014 at 5:30 AM

        The news cycle no longer operates on a set deadline. That went out the window with US 1549. The key is to pre-vet your sources and make the responsible determination as to which are reliable and which are not? I take the position that an official text message, coupled with a message on an official website is authentic and legitimate.

        When the schools cancel school because of the snow, we get a text message and a website update. The news does not wait until 7:15am or 8:15am or 8:40am to verify that the kids and teachers did not in fact go to school. They get the news out.

        In this instance, the fact that there was NOT an active shooter on campus took more than an hour to determine. I suggest that it may be irresponsible to withhold that information (even if proven later to be false). This was not a random tweet from a kid trying to skip class. It came from a verified source who ultimately made a bad call as to how to word the message.

        • April 1, 2014 at 6:13 PM

          We’ve never operated on a “set deadline” because we’ve never been a legacy news outlet with a press schedule. I agree that in light of recent events, an abundance of caution in protecting the students is justifiable. But in the absence of shots being fired – or in the media’s case anything more than “guy maybe with a gun somewhere” – throwing the term “Active shooter” around for four hours of the news cycle is irresponsible. Kudos to Carrie Wells of the Baltimore Sun and other trained professionals for showing more restraint.

    • April 1, 2014 at 6:09 PM

      To what then do you ascribe the fact that many sensible news organizations got it right? That story had the head of a wolf and the body of a duck. Sure, SU called it “Active shooter” but the text of the story clearly did not back that up. Today’s infotainment news jumped on the “they reported it” defense, but those with higher standards smelled something a bit off and hedged – wisely.

      What I’m doing here isn’t click-baiting, I’m calling it like I see it, and that is the media got this wrong – many intentionally so. Flashy headlines sell – even if you know you don’t have the story to back it up, you got the click – you got the 247 retweets. That’s all many of these outlets were counting on.

      I can understand even maybe doing that first, but 3, 4 hours later, people were still treating this like a heroic situation.

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