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Media Contagion Effect and Mass Shootings

Friday, January 11, 2019

Media Contagion Effect and Mass Shootings

Writing for Editor & Publisher, freelance journalist Angela Morris asked recently, “Do Journalists Deserve Some Blame for America’s Mass Shootings?” A review of the evidence summarized by Morris should serve as a stark warning for journalists who cover mass shootings.

The phenomena of “contagion” and “copycat” shootings by violent, deranged individuals are well-documented in academic studies. Morris cited work by Nicole Dahmen (University of Oregon), Adam Lankford (University of Alabama), Eric Madfis (University of Washington Tacoma), and Sherry Towers (Arizona State University) in making the case that media naming and detailed portrayals of mass shooters serves to motivate and trigger similar attacks by other individuals predisposed to violence. In fact, a recent Google Scholar search for the terms “shooting,” “copycat,” “contagion,” and “media” yielded 702 results (i.e., articles, columns, peer-reviewed publications, and books or chapters therein) published since 2000, while a search for “role of the media ‘mass shootings’” produced 8,206 such entries over the same time period.

Clearly, substantial attention has been devoted to assessing the media’s impact in fostering mass shootings. Findings summarized by Morris include:

  • Work by Lankford (2016), who found that “it’s a normal thing for American mass shooters to seek fame. Examining detailed mentions in the media, Lankford (2018) also calculated that “’the Charleston church shooter received more than $17 million worth of free advertising in media mentions following his attack … [and] he has already been cited as a source of inspiration by multiple copycats, including the 2017 Sutherland Springs shooter who killed 26 victims and wounded 20 more.’”
  • Dahmen’s (2018) research, which determined that “newspapers are publishing far more photos of perpetrators than victims—by a ratio of 16 to 1.” As Morris recounted,

Following 2007’s Virginia Tech shooting, in which 32 people died, 95 percent of front pages had a photo, often in the lead story. For 2012’s Sandy Hook shooting, which killed 26 – many children – 90 percent of papers had front-page, lead story photos. After 2015’s Umpqua Community College shooting, which took nine lives, just 35 percent of papers had front-page photos. Maybe it had less coverage because fewer people died.

  • Towers’s study (Towers, Gomez-Lievano, Mubayi, & Castillo-Chavez, 2015), indicating that “a new mass shooting gets its incentive from similar, recent mass shootings, and this contagiousness lasts for 13 days.” Towers et al. (2015, p. 2) suggest that “stressed individuals may have, consciously or sub-consciously, been inspired to action on previously suppressed urges by exposure [through media channels] to details of similar events.”

Morris also mentioned efforts aimed at “ending perpetrator publicity,” such as No Notoriety, and a proposal from Lankford and Madfis (2017, p. 6) which offered a reporting prescription for reporters and editors in the case of mass shootings:

1. Do not name the perpetrator.
2. Do not use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator.
3. Stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators.
4. Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.

Given the growing mass of empirical evidence that media reporting and – sadly – sensationalism of mass shootings inspire fame-seeking copycats, why has the mainstream media not adjusted its reporting? Is it ignorance? Perhaps. Offering that “there’s mounting evidence of a contagion effect in media coverage of mass shootings and school shootings,” Morris continued, “but experts say that most journalists know nothing about the research.”

Or, it could simply be institutional bias against guns and gun owners, and a refusal by the media – and entertainment industries to acknowledge their own culpability.

 

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