As information filters in about the gunman who opened fire Wednesday on Republican congressmen at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, news organizations weigh their responsibility to inform the public of a newsworthy event against the possibility that the reporting will inspire future attacks.
A second shooting, later in the day at a San Francisco UPS facility, wasn’t related, but it only heightened the news frenzy.
“In most of these crimes, the killer gets much more publicity that any of the victims. When the killer is featured, the killer often becomes a celebrity,” Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University told HuffPost.
That attention can be a dangerous incentive for would-be killers.
Like suicide contagion, a well-studied phenomenon in which media coverage of suicide increases suicide rates, there’s evidence to show that a similar contagion effect may be true of high-profile killings.
A study published in Plos One in 2015, for example, found that high-profile killings that received widespread media attention, such as school shootings, tended to happen in clusters, increasing in the two weeks following the attack, then returning to the usual pattern. The researchers did not find the same cluster phenomenon for lower-profile shootings.
“When there was likely to be national or international media coverage, those were the ones where we found contagion,” lead study author Sherry Towers told the Los Angeles Times.
According to Towers, 20 percent to 30 percent of new mass shootings appear to be inspired by a mass shooting in the recent past.
“I’m sure that this event is going to fit into this category,” Reid Maloy, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, told HuffPost. (Maloy was not involved in the study.)
A second shooting later Wednesday, at a San Francisco UPS facility, wasn’t related, but it only heightened the news frenzy.
It’s also important to note, though, that mass shootings, which are generally defined as public attacks in which four or more victims are killed, represent only a sliver of the nation’s 33,000 yearly firearm deaths. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, and about 11,000 are homicides.
In comparison, there were fewer than 100 mass shooting deaths in 2016, a number that includes the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, last year.
Where the media goes wrong
High-profile crimes are newsworthy, and, as such, the media have an obligation to cover them. Still, when that coverage extends beyond reporting the facts and into the realm of sensationalism and even glamour, journalists may be doing their readers more harm than good.
“It’s dramatic enough,” Maloy said of mass shootings. “It doesn’t need to be characterized as worst, final or ushering in the Armageddon.”
Instead, Maloy emphasized reporting specific facts of the investigation with an emphasis on public safety and public welfare. “Drop the dramatic adjectives,” he said.
“Unless [the media] abide by those parameters, they are at risk of becoming complicit in the next act.”
Entertainment publications that give murderers the rock star treatment are also to blame, according to Levin.
“Jeffrey Dahmer made the cover of People magazine three times. The marathon bomber was on the cover of Rolling Stone,” he noted. “This is not the place to give the killer exactly what he wants: to receive worldwide attention, to go down in infamy. That is not the right message that we give.”
Some journalists are taking steps toward responsible reporting
Some high-profile journalists, such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, have embraced the message that the media de-glamorize shootings by refusing to name perpetrators or show their pictures, such as this case from the Pulse shootings.
And while Levin acknowledged that no-naming policies aren’t going to turn the tide on copycat and contagion shootings, it’s a start.
“At least it indicates some recognition that we don’t want to make these monsters into antiheroes or victims,” Levin said. “They are villains, and that’s the way they should be treated.”
Levin and Maloy both emphasized the importance of focusing on the victims’ lives and stories rather than on the perpetrator’s, something Cooper did last June in a tribute to the 49 victims in Orlando.
“In the next two hours, we want to try to keep the focus where we think it belongs, on the people whose lives were cut short,” Cooper said at the time.
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