Does Naming the Shooter in the Media Lead to More Mass Violence?

Research shows media reporting on mass shootings might incentivize further mass shootings. But it's unclear whether removing the shooter's name from coverage will change that.
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A newspaper printing press.

A newspaper printing press. The "No Notoriety" campaign calls for media outlets covering school shootings to not name shooters, or publish pictures of them, in their coverage of mass violence.

In December of 2018, President Donald Trump's Federal Commission on School Safety, established after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and placed under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, released a report on how to make schools safer for children. Among the commission's recommendations was the proposal that mass media abide by the "No Notoriety" campaign, and not name shooters, or publish pictures of them, in their coverage of mass shootings. (No Notoriety itself calls for naming of shooters and images to be used sparingly.)*

No Notoriety was founded by the parents of a victim of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting in 2012. Its principles have been adopted, along with those of similar movements like Don't Name Them, by both journalists, like Anderson Cooper, and survivors of mass shootings, like David Hogg.

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For the most part, mass media has not abided by No Notoriety's guidelines in the recent past. According to a paper out of Texas State University, a content analysis of the New York Times following 91 mass shootings from 2000 to 2012 found far more articles published about mass killers than their victims. A study published in American Behavioral Scientist in 2018, which examined 4,934 photos published in the days after three separate mass shootings (at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Umpqua Community College), found that United States newspapers, on a photo per individual basis, pictured shooters 16 times as often as their victims. (In a recent example, after the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting, papers published 101 photos of the perpetrator compared to 59 total of his nine deceased victims.)**

Proponents of naming shooters contend that providing the public with information about killers is crucial to preventing future violence: Not only does it prevent disinformation from spreading and stop others from wrongly identifying the perpetrator, it also allows for those who knew the shooter in the past to come forward with information quickly, which in turn can help expose a killer's motivations and help the public understand violent trends. Opponents of naming shooters contend that providing already arrested or deceased shooters fame, via publishing their name and photos, provides inspiration for those potentially primed to commit mass violence to follow suit.

The issue of whether choosing not to name and provide photos of the shooter reduces mass violence can be broken down into three separate questions. First, does media coverage of mass shootings inspire other mass shootings? Second, if yes, is it naming the shooter, specifically, in media coverage of mass shootings that inspires other mass violence? And finally, if so, in an age of social and alternative media, would mass media not naming shooters substantially limit the spread of a shooter's name and image in a way that reduced the likelihood of follow-up violence?

There's a fair amount of research into the first question. While typical framing has been around whether media coverage of a mass shooting inspires copycat events—ones in which the shooter directly emulates the actions of a prior shooter—more recently the focus has been on whether there is a contagion effect: a tendency for a mass shooting to inspire other mass shootings, even if the specifics vary.

Research has found that mass shootings tend to cluster, indicating that media coverage of them might incentivize further mass shootings. One 2015 study published in PLoS One examined 232 American mass killings—those in which four or more people other than the shooter were killed—between 2006 and 2013, and 188 school shootings between 1998 and 2013. The researchers found that mass killings are followed by an average of 0.3 mass killings in the 13 days after they occur, and school shootings by 0.22 incidents in the same time period. No such effect was found for shootings that resulted in three or fewer deaths—the type of violence that typically receives less national media attention. These results indicate that major mass shootings that garner media attention seem to inspire other mass shootings. While other studies have found smaller immediate effects, they too have found evidence of longer-term contagion.

But even if a contagion effect exists, is it specifically naming and showing photographs of shooters that encourages future shooters to commit violence?

Those who have studied the psychological motivations of mass shooters have found that many who go on to commit violence are tipped over the edge by finding a community of others who feel similarly motivated. Jennifer Murray, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State University, has studied the manifestos, diaries, blogs, and videotapes of mass shooters and found that many find inspiration in each other: The Virginia Tech shooter wrote a paper for his English class shortly after Columbine discussing his thoughts about committing homicide; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter had a spreadsheet of 500 mass killers. "It's detailed point-blank in everyone's archival data, who they have admired and looked to latch onto," Murray says.

According to Jennifer Johnston, who has studied media contagion, mass shooters are almost all lonely and often seeking "parasocial relationships"—connections with those they've never met, including other mass shooters. While the overall coverage of a mass shooting, far beyond naming the shooter, might provide a would-be shooter with a sense of camaraderie, Johnston says forming parasocial relationships is certainly "easier to do if you know that person, and hear details about their lives, see them in photos."

Providing names and photos of a killer can also tap into another motivation of would-be mass shooters: fame. "The infamy has an attraction," Murray says. "Do they do it because of this? It's hard to say. But for those on the road to doing violence, media makes it all the more easy to justify, to re-light the fuse."

However, even if mass media stopped naming shooters and spreading photos of them, there would still be other ways for the information to get out and create a contagion effect. Indeed, a paper initially submitted in 2015 to Cornell University's arXiv.org and revised last year finds, using USA Today's mass shooting database and others, that the probability of a second school shooting in the days and weeks following a school shooting is correlated with the number of tweets referencing the first event. If there were over 10 tweets per million using the term "school shooting," for example, the probability of a second shooting in the next seven days increased by over 50 percent. Mass media refraining from naming shooters might not be enough to substantively address the problem, if individuals are actively fueling coverage of the event on social media.

Nonetheless, Johnston believes that if mass media did not name killers, mass shootings could drop by around one-third—to pre-2000 levels. She cites a 1994 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paper about suicide contagion as an example of research that was adopted by mass media, spurring a similar editorial change—a reduction in reporting on celebrity suicides.

"I always talk about what individuals can do: Refrain from retweeting or reposting things about mass shooters," Johnston says. "But mass media has a more powerful effect and wider reach."

*Update—February 16th, 2019: This post has been updated to clarify the goals of the No Notoriety campaign.

**Update—February 16th, 2019: This post has been updated with the original source of the content analysis of the New York Times.

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