Media's Mass Shooting Coverage Has Got To Change, A Psychologist Says

A reduction in shooter publicity could possibly lower the prevalence of mass shootings

People hug at a memorial service for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Almost half a century has passed since the Manson murders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who’ve never heard of Charles Manson. The cult leader — who led his followers on a mass-murder spree in the summer of 1969 — is immortalized in America’s cultural canon, the subject of a robust cache of films, TV series, music, and books. But should Americans be pressed to name a few of his victims, other than Sharon Tate, most people would draw up blanks. Manson will always remain famous for killing, and even after his death in November 2017, his name lives on in the echo chamber of the media.

As we see school violence back in the headlines these days, Jennifer Johnston, a professor of psychology at Western New Mexico University, suggests there’s a direct correlation between our national obsession with mass shooters and the rise in mass killings. Johnston is the co-author of a 2016 study that analyzed news coverage of mass killings and found that excessive coverage of shooters led to an overall increase in mass shootings over the past century. In the wake of the most recent incident in Parkland, Florida — in which a 19-year-old shooter killed 17 people at his former high school — Johnston scanned the news headlines and found much of the same.

“I go to my three or four major mass media news organizations and see if they're leading with the shooter's name and the shooter's photo,” Johnston says. “Unfortunately, in this case, that's what I found. The top stories, the main articles, were continually showing his face and his name and going into a lot background into who he was, which is exactly what we're not advocating.”

The 2016 study — titled “​Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect” and co-authored with graduate student Andrew Joy — suggests that it’s this “cult of celebrity” surrounding mass shooters that encourages future shooters. “We would argue identification with prior mass shooters made famous by extensive media coverage, including names, faces, writings, and detailed accounts of their lives and backgrounds, is a more powerful push toward violence than mental health status or even access to guns,” Johnston and Joy wrote. The “media contagion effect” is what happens when the media hyper-focuses on perpetrators, providing aspiring shooters with a role model to emulate and a blueprint to follow. They found that for every four to five school shootings, a new incident is “copied” within 13 days.

Past research has found that mass shooters share three major characteristics: depression, narcissism, and social isolation. “A lot of the shooters generally are white, a certain age range, male, and they have a sense that the group that they are a part of has more status and power that they seem to have,” Johnston says, “‘So where's my share?’ They may be trying to reclaim that in an anti-social way as opposed to a pro-social way.”

These shooters share a desire for fame — the Parkland shooter allegedly bragged in YouTube comments that he would one day become a “​professional school shooter.” Phrases like “most deadly” or “most gruesome” don’t read as deterrents for them, the study suggests, but as challenges. “We know that a number of these shooters — there's evidence in their writing and quotes from them — that they're trying to best the last one,” Johnston says. “So we want to avoid that kind of sensationalistic language as well when we're talking about the shooting.”

And that’s the good news.

According to their mathematical models, Johnston’s analysis reveals that a reduction in shooter publicity could possibly lower the prevalence of mass shootings. “If we stopped naming and showing [killers], or greatly reduced that, there's a chance that in just a couple of years we'd have a one-third reduction in mass shootings,” she says. “So I'm encouraging all media strongly to consider that they have the powerful role in possibly taking us back to mass shootings level pre-2000, which were one or two a year.”

Johnston and Joy reference two efforts that have emerged in the past decade to promote better news and media coverage of mass shooting events: the No Notoriety campaign and the Don’t Name Them campaign advise outlets from publishing shooter info and inadvertently giving perpetrators the fame and glory they originally sought. Johnston says she’s seen these initiatives make some headway.

“In the past few years, I am seeing news organization use more restraint, not refer to the shooter as often, and spend a little more time on victims than other aspects of the incident,” Johnston says. “We're hoping that some change is starting to come through.”

AFP News Agency / Twitter

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