Do Media Companies Report Too Much on Mass Shooters?

Sound, iterative journalism can keep rumor-mongering at bay—unless it feeds a "contagion" effect of violence.

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Sep 13 2018, 10:10pm

In the weeks following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida last winter, something remarkable happened: Florida lawmakers delivered a bill to Governor Rick Scott that raised the age of firearm purchases to 21 and increased funding for mental health services, among other changes. The bill, the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act," marked the rare occasion when an episode of horrific gun violence resulted in direct and relatively speedy legislative action.

Even more remarkable was that it happened in Florida, a state that has been the crucible for so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws and other policies that embody the NRA’s vision of gun culture in the US. In the wake of the Parkland tragedy, the March for Our Lives movement that arose from it has given the gun debate a new significance, precisely because it shows that the voices of young people can result in direct political change.

The gun debate is incredibly complex and too often cast in black and white when, in reality, the political interests and opinions that drive the discussion tend to land in the gray. So over the coming days, I’ll be posting video thought-starters as part of a series called Maybe I'm Wrong that outline my stances on certain elements of the gun debate. I don’t believe I’m 100 percent right about anything, and I’m curious to see what you guys think might be flawed or biased or straight up wrong with my POV.

Then, later this month, I’ll be hosting a live discussion between advocates on both sides of this issue to continue the work of elevating young people’s voices and forcing elected officials to pay attention.

Our fourth thought-starter explores the role media coverage might play in feeding America's mass gun violence.


Media companies cover mass shootings extensively, and VICE is no exception. These real-world tragedies capture the attention of lawmakers, civilians, parents, children—anyone with a stake in American life in the 21st century. But does the coverage of mass shootings affect gun violence in the United States? Perhaps most disturbingly to contemplate: Does it prompt copycats?

The idea of mass-shooting "contagion" has been considered by multiple teams of researchers over the years. One 2015 analysis found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.” While there is significant disagreement in the literature regarding short-term versus long-term contagion, among other things, a 2016 paper by researchers at Western New Mexico University fingered the media as its conduit and challenged news organizations to change their ways.

“If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years,” Jennifer B. Johnston, PhD, told the American Pyschological Association. She went on to predict, “Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed.”

While this was just one academic's take, it captured a sentiment long voiced by relatives of mass-shooting victims. After the Aurora movie theater tragedy in 2012, parents Tom and Caren Teves created the No Notoriety Campaign, calling on media outlets to publish more responsible coverage. Their recommendation: outlets should take pains not to overemphasize or hype the names and photos of shooters. One might argue few media outlets (again, VICE is no exception) have heeded that message.

To some extent, this is for a good reason: Sound, iterative journalism can keep rumor-mongering at bay. After the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, false rumors promulgated online identified the wrong the person as the shooter as the story was still developing.

Putting that spectacular case aside, the charge that media companies are sensationalizing mass shootings—devoting days of non-stop coverage, for instance—does point to an uneven balance of attention. One perhaps less obvious danger of covering mass shootings so extensively is that it might overemphasize their role in gun violence in America, furthering the false impression that mass shootings are what's driving the epidemic. The vast majority of gun deaths are given very little attention, however. More concretely, 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and the supermajority of gun violence is perpetrated by way of handguns, not assault rifles.

Maybe I’m wrong, but media companies could probably help stem the gun violence epidemic in the US by following simple best practices and honoring the wishes—if not the explicit demands—of survivors and their families. One place to start is with the recommendations of groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization: Don’t sensationalize headlines, don’t provide premium placements to perpetrators who might be seeking notoriety, and always provide prevention resources at the end of any given piece or segment.

If you or someone you know is or might be suicidal, consult the Suicide Prevention Lifeline here. For more resources on how the media might cover mass shootings, consider this Poynter guide.

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