A growing body of research suggests that increasingly intense media coverage of mass shootings is partly responsible for their acceleration in the United States.
By Jared Keller
Media trucks are seen on the campus at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, on April 19, 2007. (Photo: Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)
This much is clear: The United States is awash in gun violence.
The science is in: More guns means more death, period. When it comes to daily gun homicides per capita, no other Western country can hold a candle to the U.S., according to an analysis by the New York Times. Americans are 25 times more likely to be killed by a gun compared with other high-income nations, and eight times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, according to the American Journal of Medicine. Worldwide, 90 percent of all women, 91 percent of children under 14, and 92 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 killed with guns died in the U.S. All told, Americans represent 82 percent of gun deaths among advanced nations, according to the World Health Organization.
But while gun violence has been steadily declining since 1993 (with the exception of suicides) as part of a general decline in violent crime, mass shootings have been on the rise since the turn of the century. A 2014 analysis by Harvard School of Public Health scholars (using data supplied by Mother Jones) revealed that the public endured a mass shooting once every 172 days on average between 1982 and 2011, but once every 64 days between 2011 and 2014. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on active shooters confirms this trend, as does a similar analysis by FiveThirtyEight that revealed that “there have been more total mass shooting incidents and deaths in the 11 years starting with 2005 than there were in the previous 23 years combined.”
But why? The issue is far more complicated than simply gun ownership. What’s causing this gruesome acceleration in mass shootings in the U.S.?
Reporting on violent crime doesn’t tend to reflect actual crime rates at all.
A growing body of research suggests that increasingly intense media coverage of mass shootings is partly to blame. Call it the “media contagion effect,” as a recent paper by researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy (presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention) put it: The majority of mass shooters — mostly alienated, socially isolated straight white men, according to the authors — fixate on mass shootings as a way to “regain social capital” through the fame they know the media will bestow upon them with non-stop coverage of their crimes. “If these events do provide a way to regain any lost status, reestablishing dominance in the most extreme fashion, then ending the rampage in suicide allows them to avoid the retribution and perspective correction from the society they hate,” the authors write. “In essence, these killers believe that they are buying stock low, and selling high.”
In essence, the media becomes a vehicle through which mass murderers deal with “a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else,” as researcher Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, wrote in the New York Times days after Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 six-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut:
Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization. It makes little difference whether the perceived victimizer is an enemy government (in the case of suicide terrorists) or their boss, co-workers, fellow students or family members (in the case of rampage shooters).
Data reinforces this hypothesis. Severalstudies by Columbia University’s Madelyn Gould have already established that media reports on murders and suicide tend to trigger a subsequent rise is similar incidents in different communities. A 1999 analysis of several mass murders in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom between 1987 and 1996 found that the disparate massacres “appeared to be influenced by each other in a number of ways, often spanning many years and across continents,” as the Washington Postput it. More recently, a 2015 analysis of 232 U.S. mass murders between 2006 and 2013 (176 of which involved guns) and data on school shootings from 1998 to 2013 revealed an increase in the likelihood of a massacres for a period of two weeks after similar instances of mass violence.
This is where media coverage comes in. “On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the U.S., while school shootings occur on average monthly,” Johnston and Joy write. “There is no significant evidence of contagion in mass shootings that involve three or fewer people killed, possibly indicating that the much higher frequency of such events compared with mass killings and school shootings reduces their relative sensationalism, and thus reduces their contagiousness.”
With this in mind, it’s safe to posit that increased exposure to media reports surrounding mass murders have precipitated the rise of copycat killers. There seems to be a correlation between the rise in mass murders and structural expansions in the media with the emergence of the 24-hour cable news cycle (see: the Gulf War in 1991 and the O.J. Simpson saga). According to the 2016 APA paper, some 50 percent of news coverage focuses on violent crime “despite other crime being much more common”; a similar examination from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma found that reporting on violent crime doesn’t tend to reflect actual crime rates at all. And from ubiquity, democracy: The colonization of the Internet by news organizations desperate to capture every minute of our fleeting attention (and legions of viewers with smartphones at the ready) has only hastened the saturation of the media landscape with mass violence.
We’ve witnessed the collision of the media’s mass murder fixation and the fame-seeking of would-be perpetrators: the Columbine shooters’ desire “to leave a lasting impression on the world”; Jared Lee Loughner’s pre-Tucson proclamation that he’d “see you on national TV”; Umpqua Community College shooter Chris Harper-Mercer’s belief that “it seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
This trend reached its chilling logical conclusion in 2015, when disgraced newsman Vester Flanagan posted video on Twitter and Facebook of him gunning down two former colleagues near Roanoke, Virginia. “[Flanagan] had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted,” New York Times columnist Farhad Manjooobserved at the time. “For many, that realization came too late.”
Despite this troubling trend, members of the media can’t simply bury their heads in the sand whenever a madman opens fire in an American school. As I wrote in the aftermath of the Roanoke shooting, media organizations have an ethical responsibility to bear witness to the tragedies of history, to ensure that future generations don’t forget the horrors of epochs past.
But that responsibility comes with its own moral calculus: While the Society of Professional Journalists advises that media organizations covering violent crime “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity” or stoking fear, the logic of “it bleeds, it leads” and the pressure to squeeze cash out of evaporating advertising opportunities aren’t exactly conducive to responsible coverage.