June 5, 2021

Mass Media and Mass Shootings

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

One Feeds the Other.

Americans are murdering and maiming other Americans, generally strangers, with remarkable regularity. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker project, this year there have been 247 mass shootings (three or more shot), leaving 283 dead and 1005 wounded. This does not include those victims of shootings associated with gang violence or drug wars.

What to do? Politically, we can’t substantially regulate guns in America, at least not in any meaningful or logical way. Packing iron, or owning a small arsenal of firearms is, for tens of millions of our citizens, as American as apple pie. Perhaps, the best we can do is legislate Red-Flag laws that might deny guns to those would-be purchasers who evidence certain types of aberrant behavior.

There is, however, quite a bit that can be done that wouldn’t infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights and wouldn’t incur the wrath of the Smith-and-Wesson and Bushmaster corners of America. An impressive body of data suggests that a little common sense and restraint by mass media would go a long way toward reducing mass shooting carnage in America.

Think of it as the media-contagion effect as many public health and law enforcement authorities do. It’s real. Violent events that attract widespread coverage in news and social media inspire and, indeed, motivate some seriously troubled members of society to emulate these deadly antisocial atrocities by committing lookalike or copycat shootings.

We invariably see this with suicide (especially teen suicide), terrorist attacks, and mass shootings. Here’s the sad reality; people who crave attention imitate dramatic and often horrific actions of others when that action draws media attention. Aberrant behavior secures the notoriety they crave.

Think of it; shooting up a workplace or a school or shopping center secures front-page press and Breaking News coverage on broadcast and cable media. Flags are even lowered to half-staff at public buildings throughout the country, even the White House. Sadly, the news coverage is a bonanza for the crazed mind inclined to this type of violence. The American Psychological Association says that shooters yearn for this sort of fame and often try to secure it by killing more victims than the last shooter.

Because school shootings draw the most attention, schools, sadly, have become particularly vulnerable to this madness. For a decade and a half, beginning in 2000, we had a school shooting a month in this country. Then in 2018, that jumped to a school shooting every week.  News of these shootings, of course, spread like wildfire through mass and social media, with a constant focus on the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s motive—precisely what the prospective shooter craves.

The Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, twenty-two years ago is illustrative. Two boys murdered 12 students and one teacher and wounded 23 others. Within a month, four hundred school-related incidents quickly followed across the country. Bomb threats were rampant, and a chorus of anonymous messages was phoned into the media praising the shooters. Some schools even closed temporarily.

Fourteen years ago, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 fellow students and faculty. The shooter had previously declared in writing that he wanted to repeat the Columbine massacre. Other shooters have, since then, praised the Virginia Tech shooter and referred to him as sort of a hero figure. Other would-be shooters have expressed a determination to outkill the Virginia Tech shooter. Indeed, Adam Lanza came close when he shot and killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

And then there was the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people lost their lives and another 53 were wounded. Mass shootings, it seems, are simply in a class of their own when it comes to press coverage, while routine gun violence draws little more than a relative yawn from the fourth estate.

For example, the Orlando, shooting resulted in 14,747 news articles, during the 90 days following the massacre. During the same period of time, gun deaths in Chicago drew a mere 262 news articles even though the casualties resulting from gun violence in the Windy City had resulted in thousands wounded and hundreds dead.

It is now abundantly clear that the more media attention a shooter gets, the more likely it is that another deranged would-be shooter will attempt a similar atrocity. A 2015 study determined that following a mass shooting, there was a two-week window during which another mass shooting was likely to occur. Two years later, a follow-up study determined that media coverage of a mass shooting would increase the likelihood and the intensity of future shootings for much more extended periods. Within two weeks following the 2018 Valentine’s-Day Parkland school shooting, 638 copycat threats were phoned into schools across the country.

So, what should the media do?

Stop focusing on the attacker. Focus on the victims instead. These deranged shooters get more media coverage following a shooting than our most prominent athletes and other celebrities. Research shows that as the mass shooting casualty rate increases, the shooters receive more media attention. The shooter craves attention. The media should not accommodate that craving.

Shooters who are apprehended often admit they are pursuing fame. Many inform the media ahead of time just to be sure that their attack will get the media attention they crave. The media can and should deny the shooters the coverage they seek. Attention–that is their motivation. Why give it to them?

So, some common-sense suggestions for the media.

First, do not mention the shooter’s name or his or her motivation in the initial news coverage of a mass shooting. Do not make the shooter the news. Newspapers should limit the initial identification of the shooter to the shooter’s obituary in the obituary section of the local newspaper, and limit the font size to a size seven Serif, the almost-too-small-to-read obituary style used by the New York Times. The shooter warrants no more recognition than that.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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8 responses to “Mass Media and Mass Shootings”

  1. susan duman says:

    It’s hard to know if many of your educated and sophisticated readers will comment, but this is so important.
    Your psychological insights are profound.
    Thank you.
    Susan Duman

  2. Marilyn says:

    Sadly and tragically our media focuses on violence, bedlam, and mayhem. Clearly, we can all agree that Hal’s articulate assessment of this, is what continues to fuel the fire. One may conclude that good news doesn’t sell or generate high ratings. Yet heartfelt stories, movies, and novels are what much of our society craves. The debate over assault weapons, mental health funding, and prison reform will continue to be a source of political turmoil and controversy, but the media can, and should, rethink their position on perpetuating the dark side of our society.
    Hal, thank you for this profound read.

  3. LWY says:

    Good luck on trying to control what the press will say or not say. it will never happen.

  4. Stuart Goldfine says:

    Gun control will never work, just as Prohibition failed. None of the mass killers belonged to the NRA, yet the liberal media always makes the NRA the scapegoat. There are a lot of mentally ill in this country. People can make guns by buying parts on the Internet, stealing them, or smuggling in from Mexico.
    Why not put these murderers in jail and use the firing squad.? They do not deserve to live. Bring back the death penalty.

  5. Stephen Prover says:

    response to Stuart Goldfine: Gun control seems to be highly effective in virtually every other developed country in the world. Why would the United States be the one outlier, Stuart?
    Attend an NRA meeting and perhaps you will grasp a better understanding of the major obstacles to effective individual arms management in this country…

  6. Shirley Nasoff says:

    Hal, thank you for giving us something sensible and worthwhile to read each week.

  7. Irving Becker says:

    you never disappoint! I am always looking forward to next week..Irv

  8. Barbara Platt says:

    I have been anti-guns for more than 35 years—ever since a friend’s young son was killed in a liquor store where he was working. We must get stricter controls and punishments in place. Thanks for your perspective.

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