Research Blames Media Coverage For Rise In Mass Shootings

According to recent research, mass shooters do it partly for the fame they know the media will give them

Photos of victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting — AFP/Getty Images
Aug 04, 2016 at 3:00 PM ET

New research presented on Thursday blames the media for the rise of mass shootings, saying that the coverage of shooters’ actions inspires others who also seek such fame to follow in their footsteps—and that at least a third of such shootings could be prevented by more responsible reporting.

Western New Mexico University’s Jennifer Johnson and Andrew Joy authored the paper, which was presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention. The authors say that mass shootings in the United States have increased threefold since 2000, a “steep increase in this type of crime.”

Pulling demographic information from six previous studies, Johnson and Joy come up with a profile of the typical mass shooter: a white heterosexual male between the age of 20 and 50 who is depressed, socially isolated, and narcissistic. The authors speculate that these factors lead to a shooter’s desire to attempt to “reclaim social capital,” and to seek fame while doing it.

More The Fallout From Naming A Mass Murderer

Central to the authors’ thesis is the idea of a “media contagion effect”; that is, when a mass shooting is widely and extensively covered, with most of that coverage going to the shooter, others are inspired to copy it in the hopes of reaching the same level of fame. Johnson and Joy cited statistics showing that mass shooting incidents increase in the two weeks following another mass shooting.

“It is hard to posit alternatives as to how one mass shooter learned of another mass shooter, other than through mass media,” they write, going on to suggest that social media may now also be spreading news about mass shooters.

This idea is not new; other studies have come to similar conclusions. What does appear to be new is Johnson and Joy’s prediction that responsible media coverage of mass shootings could lead to at least an incredible one-third reduction in incidents, and that “levels of mass murder could return to a pre-1970s rate,” that is, what they were before cable television introduced the 24-hour news cycle and the internet exponentially intensified it.

The best way to do this, Johnson and Joy say, is not to name the shooters at all, or, at the very least, not share their manifestos or “weapon preference”; to glorify the victims instead of the person who attacked them. Even recent articles about the dangers of publicizing mass shootings, Johnson and Joy note, have given undue attention to shooters, naming them and even publishing large photos of them to accompany the article. Johnson and Joy’s paper, on the other hand, tries to lead by example and does not name any shooters.

Johnson and Joy admit that details about the shooter are “interesting to the public,” even though, they say, it does it no good to know them. The former fact alone, however, will make it very difficult to convince the media to withhold that information.