By Jeff Knox
(November 2, 2016) Last year, a group of researchers based at Arizona State University published a peer-reviewed report in PLOS ONE, a “multidisciplinary Open Access journal,” describing a phenomenon that many in the rights community have been talking about for years. The scientific research paper, titled Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings, described a measurable relationship between media coverage of these events, and the subsequent occurrence of similar events. In other words, the researchers found that mass killings and school shootings tend to spawn similar events, and the more media attention an event attracts, the greater the likelihood of similar events occurring within a short time.
A number of years ago, the suicide prevention community saw a similar phenomenon that they called “Suicide Contagion.” They noticed that suicides, especially suicides involving young people, often occurred in clusters, and the clusters reflected the levels of media coverage the suicides generated. More and wider media coverage resulted in predictable increases in follow-on suicides and attempts. Researchers were able to statistically demonstrate the correlation, and suicide prevention advocates used this information to call on the media to change the way they were reporting on suicides.
Media companies and groups like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) took the information, and worked with advocates to develop reporting standards and practices intended to minimize suicide contagion. It worked, and researchers can now demonstrate significant reductions in copycat and cluster suicides as a direct result of the changes in media coverage.
Unfortunately, even though the connection between mass killings and media coverage can be clearly demonstrated, and is probably even more significant than last year’s study indicates, the media is resisting adopting any changes in the way they report on massacres. The old newspaper adage, “If it bleeds it leads” seems to be the guiding principle in coverage of mass murders.
There is some hope on the horizon however, in May of this year, Andrew Seaman, who chairs the SPJ’s ethics committee, blogged about this issue, saying that he was assembling a panel of journalists and other interested parties to discuss the issue and come up with recommendations. That blog was in response to harsh criticism of a previous blog post in which he was very dismissive of those calling for changes in the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which is well-respected within the industry. Further developments on that post from 5 months ago were not found.
In both Seaman’s blog post, and that of one of his leading critics, gratuitous attacks on the NRA played a prominent role. Both “impartial” journalists, deeply concerned about journalistic ethics, made it clear that they personally believe the real problem is guns, and the NRA’s unreasonable influence in Washington, but since they can’t seem to effectively get around NRA’s influence, they’ll instead argue about whether or not to publish mass murderers’ names. Even more interesting is the fact that both the NRA and the Brady gun control group agree that excessive media coverage of mass murderers is a serious problem that contributes to more mass murders. And while that conclusion isn’t really disputed, the argument among journalists comes down to what actions constitute a reasonable and effective solution for mitigating the problem.
Denying mass murderers the publicity that many of them obviously seek, by refusing to publish their names, pictures, manifestos, or detailed background information about them, is the most heavily advocated approach. While some are calling for a complete moratorium on such information, others take a much more balanced approach, calling for journalists, editors, and producers to simply minimize publication of this information, rather than boycotting it altogether. This approach has been compiled into what supporters call the DIE Initiative – Don’t Inspire Evil. The initiative has been endorsed by a variety of media and advocacy organizations, and has been presented to the SPJ. Another effort, called No Notoriety, takes a similar approach, but calls on the public to directly lobby the media.
The explosion of the internet and social media complicate the situation even further. Regardless of what the “mainstream media” chooses to report or omit, there is no way to control “new media” and individual postings on social media. There is also the problem of omissions being considered “spin” for political reasons. In several recent attacks, the media was criticized for appearing reticent to release the attackers’ names due to their Middle-Eastern ethnicity. Critics accused the media of withholding the names as a way of hiding the attackers’ ethnic origins – and presumably their religious beliefs. Others have often criticized the media for including photos of minority suspects, claiming that the inclusion is aimed at tainting entire racial, ethnic, or religious groups. We at The Firearms Coalition decided over a decade ago that we would avoid ever repeating mass murderers’ names, and I make a conscious effort to always refer to such demented freaks in the most disrespectful and demeaning way I can within the limits of a PG-rated column.
Obviously, there are no easy answers that will satisfy everyone, but it should be obvious that 24-hour coverage of mass murders and school shootings with a heavy focus on the criminal, is not helpful. Making murderers famous, giving them a platform for their irrational rants, and making their images modern media icons, does significant harm. It disrespects the victims, and can trigger other deviants to seek a similar level of fame through similar actions.
The Arizona study, while imperfect, offers support for efforts like the DIE Initiative, and an important starting point for a serious discussion of ways to mitigate this problem. Hopefully the SPJ and major media outlets will follow through on efforts to address this issue soon.
In the meantime, it is incumbent on all of us to refuse to be drawn into the rubbernecking and lurid gawking engaged in by the mass media and our “friends” on social media, and call them out when they start crossing the line.