This post is an excerpt from my most recent course, Counseling the Victims of Mass Shootings, now available from Professional Development Resources.
Mass shootings leave more than just destruction in their wake. They leave many unanswered questions about why the shooter did it, what could have provoked him, and what we can do to prevent things like this from happening in the future. And yet in asking these questions – often in a very public way – we are engaging in what just might be one of the largest influencing factors of mass shootings.
Presenting at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, Jennifer B. Johnston, PhD, and Andrew Joy, BS, of Western New Mexico University, issued a powerful message: people who commit mass shootings in America tend to share three traits: rampant depression, social isolation, and pathological narcissism, according to a paper. What they seek the most, Johnston and Joy went on to say, is fame, and more importantly, it is up to the media to deny them it.
Reviewing data amassed by media outlets, the FBI, advocacy organizations, and scholarly articles, Johnston and Joy, defined mass shootings as either attempts to kill multiple people who are not relatives or those resulting in injuries or fatalities in public places, and concluded that the prevalence of these crimes has risen in relation to the mass media coverage of them and the proliferation of social media sites that tend to glorify the shooters and downplay the victims. Further, the researchers stated that “media contagion” is largely responsible for the increase in these often deadly outbursts (Johnston & Joy, 2016).
“Mass shootings are on the rise and so is media coverage of them. We suggest that the media cry to cling to ‘the public’s right to know’ covers up a greedier agenda to keep eyeballs glued to screens, since they know that frightening homicides are their No. 1 ratings and advertising boosters” (Johnston, 2016).
Johnston and Joy also found that mass shooters share a consistent demographic profile. Most are white, ostensibly heterosexual males, largely between the ages of 20 and 50, who tend to see themselves as ‘victims of injustice,’ and share a belief that they have been cheated out of their rightful dominant place as white, middle class males. The quest for fame also emerged as a predictable variable, and one that according to Johnson, skyrocketed since the mid- 1990s in correspondence to the emergence of widespread 24-hour news coverage on cable news programs, and the rise of the internet during the same period. Johnston explains, “Unfortunately, we find that a cross-cutting trait among many profiles of mass shooters is desire for fame” (Johnston, 2016).
And Johnston isn’t the first to note this trend. Media contagion models have previously been proposed by researchers such as Towers et al. (2015), who found the rate of mass shootings has escalated to an average of one every 12.5 days, and one school shooting on average every 31.6 days, compared to a pre-2000 level of about three events per year.
“A possibility is that news of shootings is spread through social media in addition to mass media” (Johnston, 2016).
What these trends suggest, and what Johnston and Joy advocate, is a fundamental shift in the way we respond to mass shootings – one that would include much less dramatic media exposure. She explains, “If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years. Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed” (Johnston, 2016).
Johnston’s suggestions follow those of the working group of suicidologists, researchers and the media commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control to tackle the problem of celebrity suicides. Finding that suicides widely reported in the media tended to have a contagious nature, the group made recommendations to the media to reduce its reporting of them and a clear decline in suicides was found in 1997, a few years later.
Media reporting, has an undeniable effect on us, and as Johnson points out, offers a reliable vehicle for mass shooters to satiate their need for fame, significance, and power. And while Johnston calls for change as a way to reduce mass shootings, another clear benefit in reducing media coverage of events like these is the impact it will have on us, the viewers.