Keep School Shooters Off the Front Page
School shootings have been a terrifying spectacle in America for the past three decades. But has anyone considered that these “spectacles” of mass violence are precisely what contribute to the problem of mass shootings? The main idea behind the theory of media contagion and the copycat effect is that incidents of mass violence—particularly murder-homicide—incite those who are at-risk of committing such acts to perpetrate similar incidents in the future. In other words, fame or notoriety as a result of highly publicized incidents encourages potential perpetrators to act on their desire to commit acts of mass violence. The proposed solution is to suppress news coverage of mass murders and omit the names and faces of school shooters.
Politicians on all sides have talked gun control, mental illness, potential warning signs, and “common profiles” of school shooters non-stop, but the idea that mass media platforms such as CNN or Twitter may be inciting future school shootings hasn’t received adequate attention. Numerous studies and articles suggest that media sensationalism has become a major cause of school shootings today. Adam Lankford found, in his article, Fame-seeking rampage shooters: Initial findings and empirical predictions, that not only are fame-seeking rampage shooters becoming more common, but also that the United States has a disproportionate number of these offenders. Though this theory is not very prevalent in American discourse, its inherent counterintuitivity has helped it to attract critics who have ignored evidence, made giant leaps in logic, and adhered to common fallacies in order to make their points.
One of the strongest arguments against the idea of suppressing news coverage of school shooters is that, because studies have failed to connect these “copycat” school shootings specifically to news coverage of past incidents, it would be irresponsible to place blame on the press. These arguments are most likely in response to studies that have found significant evidence of a mass media contagion but couldn’t point to a root cause. While this is certainly true, it is backed up by a considerable amount of evidence pointing to the desire for fame or notoriety as major factors in the decisions by perpetrators to commit mass shootings.
According to a study, published in Aggression and Violent Behavior by Jason R. Silva and Emily Ann Greene-Colozzi, half of the 10 most widely covered mass shootings since 1999 were perpetrated by individuals classified as “fame-seekers.” They also found that 45 out of 308 cases of school shootings were motivated by a desire for fame. Furthermore, a 2016 study, published by the American Psychological Association, was able to draw a direct connection between Twitter coverage of shootings and the likelihood of a copycat incident happening in the future: “when the number of tweets about a school shooting incident went beyond 10 per million, the probability of a school shooting in the next eight days went up to 50%.”
There’s also a fundamental flaw with the conclusion drawn by these critics: pushing for hard “proof” of a root cause of this media contagion phenomenon without considering other arguments has never proven to be useful in the world of hypotheticals. It’s incredibly easy to have this mindset if we think of major changes as paths from which we cannot return. But this couldn’t be further from the truth: the best way to go about looking for long-term solutions is to look at change as an experiment, not a permanent decision. When we consider that likelihood and hypotheticals are all we can suggest, the evidence studies have found so far show that taking these actions is at least worth a try. After all, a solution that has a low risk but a potentially high reward deserves serious consideration.
But wait, these critics say, there is a high risk associated with suppressing news coverage.
A short article, written by Kelly McBride and published on Poynter, touches specifically on this argument. McBride asserts that there are plenty of positives associated with naming the shooter and that they outweigh the negatives. In summary, she claims that naming the shooter gives people important context for the backstory, helps sociologists identify trends, and prevents misinformation. While these claims are true to a degree, McBride implicitly presents a false choice: journalists and news networks either continue to cover mass shooters the same way they’ve been doing so before or leave the public in the dark.
No one is suggesting we stop keeping records of the identities of shooters or that we examine their circumstances and motivations. The real issue lies with sensationalism: plastering the shooter’s name, face, and backstory all over Facebook, Twitter, and every national news outlet imaginable. It is the very idea that one will become an international sensation and, perhaps, a hero to individuals with similar ideologies that encourages those who are at-risk to commit mass violence. CNN, at one time, practically glorified the 2015 Oregon shooter by putting his motivation, manifested in a blog quote, on display to the world: “When they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” Ironically, CNN gave the Oregon gunman exactly what he wanted: fame.
Here’s a question for McBride: is it really necessary for the Columbine, Sandy Hook, Tucson, Virginia Tech, and Orlando shooters to be the subject of 38% (as reported in Aggression and Violent Behavior) of all articles dedicated to mass shootings from 1966 to May 2018?
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways by which the media can discontinue their contribution to a culture of fame-seeking shooters without causing other problems down the road. They can stop talking endlessly about the shooter and his backstory, give out the names of perpetrators only if it is absolutely necessary to do so (e.g if he is on the loose, and reporting personal details are necessary for his capture), and encourage the everyday people of social media to stop giving the shooter the fame they want.
Overall, while it may be important to document the identities of school shooters, but they certainly don’t belong on the front page of CNN or Twitter for an entire week. It’s an effort that demands heavy dedication by journalists and the collaborative effort of everyone present in the media and press to address. Media sensationalism can’t be reduced drastically overnight, or even in a few years, but it’s entirely possible if everyone is willing to do their part.
Lankford A. (2016). Fame Seeking-Rampage Shooters: Initial Findings and Empirical Predictions. Aggression and Violent Behavior 27, p. 122–129. [Lengthy link]
Silva, Jason R., and Emily Ann Greene-Colozzi. “Fame-Seeking Mass Shooters in America: Severity, Characteristics, and Media Coverage.” Aggression and Violent Behavior, Pergamon, 2 Aug. 2019, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S135917891830274X.
Johnston, Jennifer, and Andrew Joy. Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect. Western New Mexico University, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/08/media-contagion-effect.pdf.
McBride, Kelly. “Why It’s Important to Name the Shooter.” Poynter, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2017/why-its-important-to-name-the-shooter-2/.