It’s Time to Address the Media’s Role in School Shootings
“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger,” said President Donald Trump last year about school shootings. “I want guns to be in the hands of people that are mentally stable. People that are insane, people that are sick up here, I don’t want them to get a gun.” This notion of mental illness as a red flag of potential school shooters has been parroted by gun-rights advocates for decades. In fact, politicians and researchers have tried relentlessly to search for “root” causes of school shootings; the circumstances that compel a child to commit mass murder. The premise that only psychologically unstable or bullied people can commit mass murder might seem intuitive to many but is based mostly on myth and prejudice, not fact. We will have a higher chance of minimizing school shootings if we focus instead on researching and addressing more immediate, rather than precipitating, causes of these tragedies.
Supposed “experts” of school shootings have long tried to paint personality disorders like psychopathy or sociopathy as the prime causes of school shootings. Peter Langman, director of KidsPeace, an organization that treats at-risk youth, suggests this very idea in his book Why Kids Kill. He boldly claims that “these are simply not ordinary kids. These are kids with serious psychological problems. This fact has been missed or minimized in reports on school shooters.” He divides school shooters into three categories of mental illness: Psychopathic, Psychotic, or Traumatized. Langman gives us many interesting stories of how some people of these types of mental illness came to become mass murders and comes up with factors that contribute to creating these types of school shooters. However, his conclusion doesn’t follow that these people represent a majority or even a significant portion of school shooters. He cherry-picks offenders with rare circumstances and completely ignores all the data we have on the mentally ill’s contribution to these crimes.
It’s important first to note the overwhelming lack of evidence that mental illness is a contributor to school shootings. In its 2018 report on the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters, the FBI highlights that it “could only verify that 25% (n = 16) of the active shooters in Phase II were known to have been diagnosed by a mental health professional with a mental illness of any kind prior to the offense.” Though it acknowledged that researchers were unable to determine a psychiatric history for 37% (n = 23) of cases, it nevertheless concluded that “declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful.” In addition, the National Council for Behavioral Health’s 2019 report on mass violence in America concluded that “having a psychiatric diagnosis is neither necessary nor sufficient as a risk factor for committing an act of mass violence.”
In the book Gun Violence and Mental Illness, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016, the notion of a school shooting being caused by people with severe mental illness “snapping” is listed, by Peter Ash, among the many misconceptions surrounding such incidents. Ash goes further to point out that “only a small proportion of school shooters have a psychotic mental illness” and that school shootings are the product of long, careful planning rather than impulsive acts.
In a 2015 study published by Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, researchers reviewed 235 cases of mass shootings. They found a weak link between mental illness and mass shootings: only about 22% of the school shooters, or 52 out of 235, in these cases could be linked to mental illness. If we only consider school shootings from 2000 to 2015, this rate does not increase significantly. In that case, 32%, or 28 out of 88 mass murderers were mentally ill. In summary, most school shootings are not perpetrated by people with histories of mental illness.
In the article, Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, medical experts James Knoll et al. report that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In addition, the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%, and an even smaller percentage of these violent crimes were found to involve firearms. The authors of this article agree that an effort to tackle this “phantom” mental illness cause will result in a significant loss of resources and time and not a successful intervention in school shootings.
Those who assert that mental illness is a cause of school shootings must also ask themselves what constitutes a mental illness that is a predictor of violence. In the 2015 article Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms, authors Jonathan Metzl et al. note that “data supporting the predictive value of psychiatric diagnosis in matters of gun violence is thin at best.” According to the article, “research dating back to the 1970s suggests that psychiatrists using clinical judgment are not much better than laypersons at predicting which individual patients will commit violent crimes and which will not.” Furthermore, the authors found that associations between violence and psychiatric diagnosis frequently change over time; schizophrenia, for example, used to be associated with docility and considered largely nonthreatening. That was until the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which schizophrenia and psychiatric conditions in general began to be associated with hostility, aggression, and projected anger. The authors also remarked, earlier in the article, that the 1980s “marked a consistent broadening of diagnostic categories and an expanding number of persons classifiable as ‘mentally ill.’” In other words, it’s likely that a significant portion of perpetrators of school shootings who were classified as “mentally ill” do not in fact have any psychiatric conditions that are accurate predictors of violence.
It follows that the myth of mental illness as a “red flag,” or an indicator that someone is at risk of committing a mass shooting has clearly been unhelpful in mitigating mass shootings. But it’s also been very counter-productive. In 2018, American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel responded to those blaming mental illness as a cause for the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: “…remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness.” This reflects the rapidly growing stigma that people who are mentally ill are more dangerous than those who are not.
According to the article Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, “perceptions of persons with mental illness as violent or frightening have substantially increased rather than decreased. In short, persons with serious mental illness are more feared today than they were half a century ago.” So, how have those with mental illnesses fared under a culture that blames them for mass violence? A study by Cynthia Hoffner et al. found that “news coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, which linked mental illness with danger, appears to have led to threatening appraisals and fear among these viewers [people who had no experience with mental illness].” In addition, the perception by people with mental illness that the attitudes of others towards them had become more negative was associated with less engagement in support/comfort activities as well as less willingness to disclose mental health treatment.
Mental illness is not the only trait to be falsely implicated as a cause of school shootings. One of the biggest misconceptions about school gun violence is that there is an accurate or useful “common profile” of school shooters at all. The Secret Service reported in 2002 that “there is no accurate or useful ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” The attackers referenced in the report varied in demographics such as age, race, status of family, academic success, social relationships, etc. In fact, there were indications that many of the attackers were successful in school and relationships. Over two-thirds of the attackers had never been in trouble or rarely were in trouble at school. The only noticeable circumstances shared by most of the attackers were that 71 percent experienced some form of bullying and 78 percent had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to the attack. Though this highlights the importance of treating those with suicidal thoughts and supporting the fight against bullying, these circumstances are too common among the millions of children in the United States who don’t commit mass murders to be considered red flags. According to surveys from a report by the 2017 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 17.2 percent of high school students nationwide had seriously considered attempting suicide within the past year. Additionally, 19.0 percent of high school students nationwide had been bullied on school property in the past year, and 14.9 percent had been electronically bullied.
Researchers have tried, and failed, to come up with a “common profile” of school shooters. Authors Jack Levin and Eric Madfis attempted to illustrate the path to mass murder by children in their proposal of a five-stage model in which multiple criminological theories were integrated. Such a model suggested that long-term frustrations experienced in early life or in adolescence—whether at home or at school—lead to social isolations. These strains and the child’s lack of support systems, they add, cause any short-term negative event to be devastating, rendering him mentally and emotionally disturbed. This leads to the planning stage, during which the child fantasizes about situations in which they are the perpetrators of mass murder. Then the massacre eventually happens. The analyses of multiple school shootings such as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre seemed to be consistent with Levin and Madfis’ model. Except there’s one critical flaw with it: it fails spectacularly to distinguish between the socially isolated children who have committed mass murder and the millions of American children who experience some form of social isolation but haven’t murdered anyone.
So, there’s evidently no negative trait shared by a significant portion of perpetrators that can predict school shootings. Then what causes are there, and what preventative measures can be taken?
There is one often-overlooked cause that, if addressed properly, could drastically reduce the number of school shootings: mass media coverage. It is counterintuitive to suggest that something as seemingly harmless as reporting the names of school shooters and telling their stories—as opposed to mental illness or social isolation—might be one of the biggest causes of modern school shootings. But sensationalism by the news and media is rampant in today’s world, and it’s inciting at-risk individuals to seek what journalists have been giving the school shooters on which they’ve reported: international fame and notoriety.
Instances of school shooting tragedies frequently appear on the front pages of national news outlets, with the primary focus of the story being the identity, motivations and backstory of the shooter during the first week of the tragedy. Sometimes the editors sensationalize mass-murder tragedies with headlines like “BLOODBATH.” 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 unintentionally gave the Oregon shooter exactly the fame he wanted.
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. According to a study, published in Aggression and Violent Behavior by Jason R. Silva et al., half of the 10 most widely covered mass shootings since 1999 were perpetrated by individuals explicitly classified as “fame-seekers.” They also found that 45 out of 308 cases of school shootings were motivated by a desire for fame.
But evidence of the effect of mass media coverage on at-risk individuals goes beyond merely reports that some rampage shooters explicitly sought fame. The percentage of perpetrators influenced to a significant degree by media sensationalism may very well be higher than those numbers, given that its effect can be subconscious. Another phenomenon that plays a role in school shootings and has been studied for quite some time is the “copycat effect.” The copycat effect is the tendency of media sensationalism or mass news coverage of a violent crime to result in similar events in the future. It has been shown to be a cause of various tragedies and has been observed for centuries. In his book, The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines, Loren Coleman describes how the phenomenon has influenced history and how tragedies are being perpetuated by mass media sensationalism today. One of the earliest instances of the copycat effect in action, Coleman described, was in Goathe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which tells the story of a young man who shot himself after a failed romance and encouraged others to commit suicide as well. Coleman adds that mass media coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 caused the suicide rate in the United States to increase by over 12 percent for a brief time. Infamous murderers like Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper created many copycat killers. The incidents of suicide bombings over recent decades, he notes, were perpetuated by media sensationalism.
The copycat effect can be connected to the school shootings of today. A study, published nearly five years ago by PLOS ONE, found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.” In other words, school shootings are contagious. It notes that the time frame of temporarily-increased probability of a copycat incident is over 13 days. A 2016 study, published by the American Psychological Association, found that “for every four to five [school shooting] incidents, a new incident is copied within 13 days.” It also reported that “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%.” It conceded that a cause for this “contagion” phenomenon was unknown, but nevertheless concluded that there is a strong correlation between mass media coverage and the likelihood of a copycat incident.
Given that we have too little information to go on in terms of a “common profile” of mass shooters to tackle a root cause, the evidence that the media plays a significant role in mass shootings points to one solution: suppress media and news coverage. That means omitting the names, backstories, and other details of the perpetrators from social media pages, articles, and televised news. It’s time to stop giving mass murderers the fame they want. Eliminating or, at least, minimizing the international notoriety given to perpetrators as a result of committing mass shootings will significantly reduce the incentive to commit such acts by at-risk individuals in the future.
This is not to say that news stations and outlets should be forced by the government to stop giving out the names and backstories of school shooters. They have every right to do so. But it’s also true that they have a right to glorify school shooters while giving little attention to the victims, that they have the right to be greedy for views and ratings, that they have a right to be stupid. And they have exercised those rights to the fullest extent.
Though it holds very little prevalence in American politics, the argument that the media should suppress coverage of perpetrators due to their role in the problem has drawn its fair share of critics. For example, defenders of the “right to publish” the identities and details of school shooters attack arguments that refer to studies of the copycat effect with the insistence that there’s no hard proof of media contagion. However, when young lives are at stake, a preponderance of the evidence should be enough to convince the media to at least TRY voluntary suppression of the shooters’ identities to see if it reduces copycat atrocities. After all, a solution that is low risk with a potentially high reward deserves serious consideration.
But wait, these critics say, there are plenty of benefits associated with reporting on and publishing details of the shooter’s identity and background.
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.
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 IS important to document the identities of school shooters, they certainly don’t belong on the front page, or on CNN or Twitter for an entire week. Even though we cannot consider circumstances like social isolation, mental illness, bullying, or childhood trauma solid factors in a rampage shooter’s decision to commit mass murder, we now know that external forces such as media sensationalism play a major role in pushing such individuals on the brink of doing so. Even though no study is 100% certain on how this phenomenon works or what drives it, there’s nothing to lose by voluntarily minimizing media coverage of the personal details of school shooters. In fact, the 2016 American Psychological Association study predicted a one third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed. It’s worth trying and, because it doesn’t revolve around gun control or mental illness, an idea against which neither gun-rights nor gun-control advocates can argue. Reducing media sensationalism demands dedication from journalists and the collaborative effort of everyone in the media.
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