How Media Contributes to Mass Shootings
Author: Davorian Ware
Nothing is easy to understand about mass shootings. Why do they happen? Can we prevent them? What are pre-attack signs? The sensationalism of news and the volatility of social media has further muddled the waters of truth and understanding. Because of this, recent studies have shown we may be the bane of our existence. There are many provocative words used to describe mass shootings or mass shooters: deranged, mentally unstable, sociopath, horrific, massive body count, etc. These words have pushed vulnerable people into the spotlight and upon the lips of household conversations.
Mass shootings are on the rise while violent crime is declining (according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report). The Atlantic released an article in 2017 that outlined a warning by Malcolm Gladwell a couple of years prior. As Gladwell concluded in his exposition of the evolution of mass shooters, he left us with a message: mass shootings will increase. It almost seems as if Gladwell was clairvoyant, because mass shootings have increased, and we might have caused it.
A recent study done at Western New Mexico University outlines three risk factors for potential mass shooters that shed light on why the media makes mass shootings more prevalent. The three elements are isolation, depression, and narcissism (Johnston, 2018). In an analysis of 115 potential shooters over nine years, it was found that half of all the at-risk shooters were severely teased and "social loners" (Weisbrot, 2008). School shooter isolation and depression may be inextricably linked as Fein and Vosskuil (1999) noted that most of their subjects had difficulty building or maintaining relationships, often externalizing blame to those around them. This may add to self-isolation. While social isolation and depression are important, their connection with narcissism makes our media issue more poignant. Meloy et al. (2004), noted that many shooters seek status or importance through crime. The media often perpetuate their importance. Publishing manifestos, showing videos of the premeditated crime, and constantly painting the shooter as the center of the story helps glorify the tragedy. Other potential shooters can use this as a "sign" or a road to fame and recognition that they desperately desire. In a study done by Nathalie E. Paton, she posits that, historically, this recognition has led to communities of these individuals. She stated, "in their minds, they become anti-heroic icons of modern times…" Luckily, she also said that, due to censorship by companies like YouTube, these communities have diminished. And, though that means that these communities push further into the unseen parts of the internet, no recent shooter has been known for his online participation. This may indicate that the internets power to reinforce mass shooters' identity is diminishing.
Using the knowledge that we have at hand, we can help reduce mass shootings, in part, by taking away their fame. News organizations feed off the provocative, so they tend to focus on the viciousness of the killer. As citizens and consumers, we must call on the media to stop naming and highlighting these killers. A recent article by news publication Vox outlined much of what I have written here. They have dug up studies that state the prevalence of a shooters name gives that shooter legitimacy in his/her cause and beckons others to follow suit. They also listed a few campaigns that are fighting against shooter name recognition. No notoriety, Don't Name Them (put forward by the FBI and Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program), and I Love U Guys Foundation, to name a few.
Some warnings for the media - don't put their name in the headlines, stop showing their face, don't read or publish their manifestos, and stop comparing them to other shooters. It is difficult to think about what kind of story can be written about a mass shooter without focusing on that shooter. But, if we did a better job focusing on the victims, not only could we potentially deter potential other shooters, we might be able to expedite assistance for victims.
Any violent act against innocent people is a tragedy. We must do a better job, as consumers, focusing on prevention and preparation. Much of the analysis of school shooters is complicated, and we still need to do a lot more research. But one thing is obvious, Don't Say Their Name.
Gladwell, Malcolm. "How School Shootings Spread." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 Oct. 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence.
Johnston, J., & Joy, A. (2017). Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect (Doctoral dissertation, Western New Mexico University).
Nathalie E. Paton, (2012), Media Participation of School Shooters and their Fans: Navigating between Self-Distinction and Imitation to Achieve Individuation, in Glenn W. Muschert, Johanna Sumiala (ed.) School Shootings: Mediated Violence in a Global Age (Studies in Media and Communications, Volume 7) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.203 – 229.
Thompson, Derek. "Mass Shootings in America Are Spreading Like a Disease." The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Nov. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/11/americas-mass-shooting-epidemic-contagious/545078/.
Towers, S., Gomez-Lievano, A., Khan, M., Mubayi, A., & Castillo-Chavez, C. (2015). Contagion In Mass Killings and School Shoots. PLOS One, 1-12. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117259.
Ashleigh Diserio Consulting works with individuals and organizations, assisting them in gleaning insight into a person’s life, motivation, and past and future behavior, so certain areas of behavior can be understood with a high degree of accuracy. We provide services in the areas of criminal and intelligence investigations, management support, threat assessment, insider threat support, and education and training.