When reading about the men behind our country's never-ending plague of mass shootings, there are two different narratives commonly deployed in the press: one calling him a monster, and another commenting on what a sick, sad individual he must be.
Those are very different descriptors, reflecting divergent ways of attributing blame. According to new research, which approach news outlets take depends largely on the suspect's race.
An analysis of media coverage of 219 such tragedies finds blacks who commit these crimes "are treated as perpetually violent threats to the public," writes a research team led by Ohio State University sociologist Scott Duxbury.
In contrast, whites are far more likely to be portrayed as "sympathetic characters," propelled by mental illness or other forces outside of their control.
"Mental illness narratives provide a coherent framework through which the media can divert blame from white offenders," the researchers write in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.
The researchers analyzed 433 news items covering 219 mass shootings between January 1st, 2013, and December 31st, 2015. They defined "mass shootings" as ones in which four or more victims (excluding the perpetrator) are shot. The stories were from newspapers or online news sites.
They focused on how the alleged shooter was portrayed: as a viscous criminal, or as a troubled soul. Stories that take the latter approach often imply the shooter was a victim of circumstance, emphasizing his "experience of significant stress, strain, or loss," and/or his "troubled past."
Common phrases in such coverage include "He was going through a lot," "He suffered abuse as a child," and "He didn't really have friends."
After taking into account a variety of factors that could shape the coverage, including the number of victims, whether the incident was a domestic dispute, and whether it was gang-related, Duxbury and his colleagues found a clear pattern.
"Media coverage is more likely to frame white and Latino shooters as mentally ill than black shooters," they write. "The odds that white shooters will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 19 times greater than the odds for black shooters."
Compounding the disparity, even in the relatively few cases where black shooters were identified as suffering from mental illness, they seldom received the same sympathetic treatment. The researchers found 78 percent of stories that frame a white mass killer as mentally ill "discussed the shooter as a victim of society." In contrast, that was true of only 17 percent of stories about their black counterparts.
The researchers further report that, in coverage of these events, "Latinos appear to fall between blacks and whites." Hispanic shooters are more likely than blacks, but less likely that whites, to have their stories told in a victim narrative.
These results are consistent with those of a study released last year, which examined 170 news stories about public shootings published in five major newspapers between 2008 and 2016. It found 80 percent of the stories that used the term "mental illness" concerned white perpetrators. In contrast, 53 percent of the stories that used the word "thug" were about black shooters.
The results should be a cautionary tale for news outlets. Ascribing a motivation to mass killers, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, is tricky, and unconscious racist attitudes can and do influence how such coverage is framed.