How the media impacts the prevalence of mass shootings
The increase in mass shootings in the United States has generated a lot of news coverage dedicated to reporting on these events. But too often, journalists don’t take enough precaution when reporting on sensitive topics like mass shootings.
Reports usually focus on the shooter rather than on the victims of the shooting. This method can romanticize the perpetrator’s wrongdoing and leave a lasting impression on the public. When the media does this, what ends up happening is the mass shooter becomes glorified. This is what inspires the all too real copycat effect.
About five weeks after the Virginia shooting where a reporter gone rogue shot his ex-coworkers on live television, a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon occurred. According to an article published in Mother Jones, the perpetrator of the Oregon shooting reportedly posted comments in admiration of the Virginia shooter, stating: “His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
This post should be a red flag for all journalists to reference in the future. People can label the shooter’s comments as being crazy, yet this highlights the media’s tendency to focus on a shooter and unintentionally give them fame. It is a journalist’s responsibility to be wary of the effects of their writing. And as of now, there is a clear lack of caution regarding coverage of mass shootings.
There is some truth to this gunman’s comments in that the greater the magnitude of the shooting, the more news coverage it gets. However, it is morally unsettling that the shooter’s name becomes more recognizable than any of the victims’ names. Many of us remember the name Dylann Roof, the name of the man who killed nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. But not many remember the names Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Myra Thompson, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Reverend Sharonda Singleton, Susie Jackson, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, or Reverend Daniel Simmons Senior, the people he killed. In mournful events like mass shootings, it is the names of the victims that should be commemorated.
Shooters who post online comments only receive more notoriety for their actions. Infamy is what these individuals are after and that is exactly what they receive. These mass shooters don’t deserve the attention they get from the media, and furthermore they don’t deserve to be flattered by having copycats follow in their footsteps.
Mother Jones also points out that many copycats aim to emulate and even outdo previous perpetrators, whether that be by increasing the body count or by killing in a more horrifying manner. It seems that media coverage means everything to them. The more violent the shooting, the more coverage they get, and thus the bigger their legacy. They rely on visual images and social media for exposure. That is why journalists should be more vigilant when reporting on incidents like mass shootings. A common and simple suggestion is to withhold the shooter’s name, which can be helpful because it takes away any recognition.
As reported in Mother Jones, Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California-San Diego and a leading researcher on targeted violence, has suggested straying away from titles like “lone wolf” and “school shooter” that might attract other potential gunmen. Instead, Meloy advises the media to use phrases like “an act of lone terrorism” or “an act of mass murder.” This will diminish the credit given to the shooter.
Also, the number of news sources that report on the same mass shooting will further glorify a gunman’s actions. Journalists should ask themselves at what point a story becomes over-reported. Perhaps there should be a limit to how many articles can be written about such a traumatic event as a mass shooting.
In addition, many people want a “no name” campaign to be put into practice. Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to name the shooter who killed nine people at the Oregon community college. The Huffington Post reported at a press conference about the shooting that Hanlin said, “Again, you will not hear anyone from this law enforcement operation use his name,” because he said it would, “only glorify his horrific actions and serve to inspire future shooters.”
Mother Jones noted that parents of a victim of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting launched a similar campaign called the “No Notoriety” campaign, which advises the media not to mention a shooter’s name. News corporations need to take action in support of these types of campaigns in order to diminish the number of copycats. It’s more important to bring light to the traumas of the event than to focus on condemning the person that caused them.
Although there is no definitive research about the media’s influence on mass shooters, there is no doubt that social media has already created copycats. Not only does social media generate news at fast speeds, but it also makes news more accessible to everyone around the world. This magnitude can boost the potential fame of a mass shooter. NBC News released an article stating that Sherry Towers, a research professor at Arizona State University, said, “On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the U.S., while school shootings occur, on average, monthly.” The sheer number of mass shootings is alarming enough for authorities to want to stop copycats dead in their tracks.
By focusing on the victims of the crime, perpetrators will be discredited. This takes away the appeal of fame and will thus not exacerbate the copycat effect.
Devon Bedoya is a freshman journalism major who wishes the media didn’t have such an itchy trigger finger. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.