By Natalie Jennings
In the year 2017 alone, America saw more mass shootings and violence than ever before. So, what role does media play in this? Little change has been made in the past 20 years regarding gun laws and the mental health system. What has changed, however, is the amount of media coverage on each shooting.
According to Jennifer B. Johnston, Ph.D., of Western New Mexico University, "Before the year 2000, there were up to about 50 deaths related to mass shootings a year. We're now topping more than 300 deaths per year."
This number has risen substantially over the past decade, and it's thought by crime analysts to be no coincidence.
Most shooters identify with each other as they share certain characteristics like narcissism, depression and social isolation. The role of contagion (similarly, the copycat phenomenon) in these circumstances is critical. Through contagion, certain behaviors are spread from person to person by close interaction or identification with someone else. For example, a common trait amongst most active shooters is a desire for fame.
These shooters, or soon-to-be shooters, "identify with each other and, when they see someone in the media who has been given the fame they seek, they feel motivated to either beat that shooter's kills or make a name for themselves as they go out in a 'blaze of glory' " Johnston said.
Former FBI behavioral analyst Andre Simmons said, "The copycat phenomenon is real. As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we're seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks."
Similarly, with every news headline that reads "Largest Mass Shooting in History," someone else out there may get the motivation to plan the next biggest shooting. One might feel the urge to cause harm, but could feel truly motivated when they see how "successful" others are at getting media coverage.
As more and more attacks come about and are broadcast all over news channels and social media pages, others out there may feel comfortable expressing themselves in the same way. This has snowballed and created our reality today - the reality that America sees the highest rate of mass shootings annually.
Researchers noted the frequency of mass shootings has increased dramatically. The increase in number of shootings relates to the way media covers the events and glorifies the shooters. They downplay the victims, as media coverage is nearly double for shooters compared to coverage for the victims.
So, what role does the media play in any of this? Unfortunately, some shooters use the media to go out in a "blaze of glory" and try to create a name for themselves.
Media companies will argue that, in most instances, they run stories that viewers want to see, and that the public has a right to know the information they give out. They are keeping their numbers up and, for the most part, keeping consumers happy. However, again, shooters often identify with each other. If the media runs a story describing a recent shooting that includes details of said shooter's intimate life, others may want to emulate the story.
This much information on violent attacks may become threatening and can create a domino effect of violence. According to previous studies by crime analysis researchers, major attacks were less frequent before news outlets ran stories that gave every detail of a violent act.
Now, the media tells the story of the attack, but doesn't end there. They explain, in explicit detail, exactly how the violence unfolded from start to finish. They may even go into detail on the shooter's childhood, personal life, beliefs, hobbies, etc. This creates a situation in which a viewer may relate to the shooter and begin planning a shooting.
Every explanation of an attack could potentially draw someone else's attention to the idea that, maybe, they, too, could "make a name for themselves." It shows violent people that there are others out there like them and even gives them the basis on how to begin planning their own attack.
So, are media outlets to blame? It can be argued that viewers started asking news companies for more answers in order to feed their curiosity. It can also be said that others simply wanted the details in order to figure out a way to stop the brutality.
Unfortunately, with the information provided on the violence, little has been done to prevent these attacks. Instead, a world has been created in which attacks are fueled with information. If the media continues to broadcast attack details, it is likely there will not be a decline in the sheer number of annual fatalities due to shootings.
Johnston thinks that, by keeping the names of shooters and their personal information out of the spotlight, the idea of killing for fame becomes much less attractive. Several previous shooters have confessed to looking for fame by inflicting the "worst shooting in history," so stripping away any fame they might receive would eliminate the desire.
Mass media is one of the greatest communication tools of our time, so how can anyone argue to restrict that? It is important for the people to recognize that hunger for information is causing some conflict with our wellbeing, but it is imperative for the media outlets to see that they are a part of a serious problem.
If news outlets begin to tell the same story with slightly fewer details, major differences in our country would likely be observed. They might lose some views, but recognizing they are part of a deadly problem is key in ensuring the safety of countless innocent lives.
Placing any blame on the media is complex.
"With something so complicated as mass shootings, there can be multiple explanations," said Dr. Todd Schoepflin, associate professor of sociology at Niagara University.
Media companies aren't aiding in any attacks and they aren't justifying anything. They simply are releasing the information that millions of Americans want to see. However, these outlets know certain homicide stories that frighten the nation are the reason their audience base goes up.
The outlets play on the fears and curiosities of Americans, but what people don't recognize is the potential negative impact it has on the future news stories to come. To help prevent future shootings, news outlets could shine more light on the victims and the way the nation comes together after an attack. They could spend 10 minutes talking about the victim and two minutes talking about the shooter, rather than the other way around. Something so easy for the media could save countless lives in the future and promote a better tomorrow for this country.
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