The Effect of Media Coverage on Mass Shootings (Analysis Essay)


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “mass murder” is a general homicide incident where four or more victims are murdered in one single event, and one or more nearby locations (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Mass murder is an umbrella term for any attack of this nature. These attacks include bombings and an alarmingly growing type of attack, mass shootings. From 1999-2013, there had been 317 mass shootings with over 1,550 victims (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). For the past few years, mass shootings have been a topic the media loves to talk about, especially since seven out of ten of the deadliest mass shooting attacks have happened in the past decade (Gun Violence Archive, 2020). It is an emotional and controversial subject, and it garners a lot of views and clicks on several types of media platforms. Every time there is a large scale casualty, the media covers it extensively without fail. These events could be caused by a disgruntled employee who just got fired from their job, a severely mentally ill shooter who believes they are on a mission sent by a divine being or a white supremacist who believes that they need to eradicate a specific population. Whatever happened or whoever committed this attack, the media will cover it in great detail. This coverage usually leads to a substantial amount of political discourse, as the topics of gun control and mental health get brought up in response to these incidents. While it is imperative for the public to be knowledgeable about these attacks, the media should take necessary precautions when publicizing mass shootings because of the media contagion effect and its effects on the public’s mental health.

Contagion theories are theories that share a similar theme: a “catalyst” of sorts having a behavioral impact on a population. Contagion theories cover many diverse topics, including the media contagion effect and the mass shooting contagion theory. While the media contagion effect covers a broader spectrum of sensationalized subjects, both are very similar: select members of the public will try to commit acts of violence due to large amounts of publicity surrounding other mass attacks. For many mass shooters, longing for fame and notoriety is a common motivation for committing their attacks. Some of them go as far as to upload manifestos for the media to find on public YouTube or other social media accounts, such as the Isla Vista shooter and the El Paso Walmart shooter. For example, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooter states in a YouTube video hours before the shooting, “I am going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people...when you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am” (Robles, 2018). The Umpqua Community College shooter stated in a blog post, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight” (Healy & Lovett, 2015). The Pulse Nightclub shooter called a news station in the middle of his shooting to report on his attack, and he even checked social media platforms to see if his shooting went viral (Lankford & Madfis, 2017). These individuals are already mentally ill, and along with other motivations the perpetrators may have (racism, sexism, homophobia, being fired from a job, etc.), they want fame so that they can feel satisfied with themselves. As Lankford & Madfis, 2017 explains, “At least in part, their desire for fame can be understood as attempted compensation for the belief that they were underappreciated, disrespected, or mistreated in the past. Instead of being marginalized, ignored, or forgotten, they want to show the world that they deserved far more attention—and now they are going to get it”. Extensive media coverage of these attacks inspires copycat attacks. Copycat attacks are a subcategory of the media contagion effect where some people attempt to imitate other tragedies they see being publicized because of the notoriety. Columbine is known as one of the most famous school/mass shootings in American history and was the most significant news story of 1999 (Pew Research Center, 1999). As of 2017, there had been at least 21 copycat attacks and 32 attackers that were directly inspired by the Columbine shooters (Langman, 2017). As these mass shooters gain fame, they become an inspiration to those who are impressionable with violent and suicidal ideations. The media fails to recognize how great the media contagion effect has on high-risk individuals, but also the victims and the public. 

Along with inspiring other potential mass shooters, the way the media covers these incidents harm the victims and the general public. A way the media does this, specifically to victims, is their focus on the perpetrators. Usually, the media will showcase as much as they can about the perpetrator and their motivations. These efforts in trying to figure out the attacker’s motivations usually overshadow the victims, where they become mere numbers and statistics. The perpetrator gets most of the attention when it comes to media coverage. As demonstrated in Nicole Smith Dahmen's study, the study analyzed photographic coverage of mass shootings in newspapers. Over 4,900 photographs from nine days of coverage showed that "the study found empirical evidence that on a photos-per-individual basis, the coverage gave more attention to perpetrators than to individual deceased victims by a ratio of 16 to 1" (Dahmen, 2018). Also, Dahmen's study revealed that "this study found that photos of perpetrators tended to be significantly larger, on average, than photos of victims. Perpetrator photos were large or medium 33.2% of the time and small or mug shot size 66.8% of the time. By contrast, photos of deceased victims were only large or medium size 9% of the time and were small or mug shot size 91% of the time" (Dahmen, 2018). Compared to the victims, shooters were much more likely to get the media's attention, and their faces will be shown larger in print media compared to victims. In these situations, the victims and the heroes should be the focal point, not the person who decided to take their lives.

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