Mass Shootings, the Media, and the Copycat Effect

June 15th, 2014

A common trait among mass murderers is the desire to achieve immortality. Deranged individuals who plan mass shootings often glamorize previous massacres, and seek to emulate those murders. The murderer at Newtown maintained a “score sheet” of previous mass murders. The Columbine shooters hoped that Quentin Tarantino would make a movie about them. The shooters at Virginia Tech and Columbine, in their manifestos, made explicit references to earlier shootings, and sought to inspire other mass-murders.

While it is impossible to isolate what drives these psychopaths to such grotesque acts, one aspect that does not receive nearly enough attention the copycat effect. The media is all too willing to offer nonstop coverage of the shooter, broadcasting his name, face, manifesto, and  if it is available, video of his acts.  Most people who watch the coverage will associate with the victims. But there are some deranged and sick people who will identify with the killer. This is all too common. What role, or responsibility, does the media have in not ingratiating the shooter’s desire for attention, and hope to influence other killers.

Would decreasing coverage of mass shootings prevent future mass shootings? Maybe. Studies show that when the media deliberately decreases coverage of suicides, the rate of suicides drop. Likewise, media coverage of celebrity suicides increase suicides. NIH has published guidelines about media coverage of suicides.

This is a conversation the media should take up, considering how serious they are about stopping and prevent mass shootings. Gun control is not the only avenue.

What can be done? Professor James Fox, a leading expert of mass shootings, offers some thoughts:

Whatever the extent of imitation, it is important that media coverage not obsess over large and especially record-setting body counts and avoid the tendency to sensationalize already sensational events (see Duwe, 2000). Indeed, there is a critical distinction between shedding light on a crime and a spotlight on the criminal.

In the aftermath of the shooting at UCSB, Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the Times penned a piece titled, “Giving Killers Coverage, Not Platforms,” that wrestled with some of these tough journalistic standards:

. After The Times posted both the 141-page written manifesto and a video statement issued by the California gunman last week, Mr. Schulman wrote to me. He made the case that publishing those statements — which he sees as a form of propaganda — perpetuates a culture in which violence is rewarded with notoriety.

“There’s an unspoken agreement that if you are frustrated and angry, that all you have to do to get your feelings broadcast is to kill a lot of people,” Mr. Schulman, the executive editor of The New Atlantis, a quarterly journal devoted to technology and society, told me in a later interview. He spoke of a “conscious copycat effect” that can be seen in the string of mass killings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown, Conn.

The media, he says, “have been nearly perfect participants” in the “ritualistic response” that incentivizes these horrific episodes. It’s past time, he believes, to rethink that and to change it.

He was not alone, among Times readers, in considering this question. I heard from a Hunter College professor, Steven M. Gorelick, who wrote that he wondered “what might have gone into the decision by The Times to post the chilling video made by Mr. Rodger before he went on his killing rampage.” He wondered whether this was “a simple case of the public’s right to know, or whether there was any substantive discussion about any kind of possible negative impact that posting the video might have had.”

For most journalists, the instinct to publish what they know — rather than to hold back — is a strong one. Yet nearly every article reflects judgments and decisions about what to use and what not to use.

Unlike many news outlets, The Times did not cast the video and written statements in a sensational light — but it did publish them.

Kelly McBride, who writes about journalism ethics, believes “there’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.” But, she recommended in a piece for, “don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document.”

Mr. Schulman sees a different middle ground, he says. The barrier to publication of these documents and videos should be higher, and the media attention paid to them far less — “maybe no more than a passing mention that it exists.”

The question of unintentionally glorifying a killer is not new. When Rolling Stone magazine put a photo of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on its cover, many protested that it made him look glamorous. (The Times had run the same photo, earlier.) When The Times published a front-page photograph of the Newtown gunman, who killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, some readers objected for the same reason.

And The Times wrote a story last December about people in Colorado who, based on similar thinking, want the media to stop publishing even the names of mass killers. Their idea — more extreme than Mr. Schulman’s proposal — has gained some traction.

I talked to The Times’s national editor, Alison Mitchell, about the issue. She told me that decisions about whether to use this kind of material are not made lightly.

“In every one of these cases, we think about it. It comes under a lot of discussion, and is not done reflexively,” she said. In this case, the video and manifesto were so integral to understanding the motivation for the crimes, she said, “we would have very consciously not have been telling a big part of the story.”

Times readers “want to see and judge for themselves,” Ms. Mitchell said. “It’s a disservice to try to shield them.”

As a lifelong journalist, my instincts, predictably enough, line up with Ms. Mitchell’s. In general, I don’t believe in holding back germane information from the public.

Likewise, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic urged outlets to withhold information about the shooter, and summarized other similar views.

The person who perpetrated the murder spree in Santa Barbara knew that his name, his photograph, the video he made before he acted, and his written manifesto would be national news. He expected posthumous fame and an audience of millions.

He got it.

Like Zeynep Tufekci, who wrote about this phenomena two years ago in The Atlantic, “I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter…may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects…”

Ezra Klein has the same concern.

“Mass murderers want glory and fame,” he wrote at Vox. “Somehow, we need to stop giving it to them.” That sounds doable. By custom, the U.S. media doesn’t report troop movements or the names of underage rape victims. Outlets follow certain practices when reporting on suicide, too. There’s no reason that better practices can’t develop around mass shootings. They needn’t be adhered to by everyone to work.

They just need to be the norm.

I’d urge other journalists to use the aftermath of this tragedy to debate what norms ought to govern the press after the next one. A lot of thorny questions will be raised.

To kick things off, I’ll offer one suggestion: After an event like the mass murder in Santa Barbara, the press should publish neither the name nor the photo of the perpetrator. Would-be fame-seekers should know ahead of time that their name won’t appear in the newspaper, or on Buzzfeed, or any other prominent outlet. (I don’t propose that it be an official secret. If someone is determined to find the name someplace on the Web, that’s fine. Preventing it from being a household name is sufficient.)

Would be fame seekers should also know that their photo won’t be plastered across the screen on CNN or the local NBC affiliate or any other prominent outlet, if their crime seemed motivated in part by a desire to get just that kind of attention.

Coverage that self-censored the perpetrator’s name and photograph wouldn’t eliminate all perverse incentives. But it would deny a significant amount of notoriety. And the cost to the public would be low.

As an example, Sun News, dubbed the Fox News of Canada, exhibited great self-restraint in reporting on a recent violent shootout up north.

After a shooter murdered three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and left two others in critical condition in New Brunswick, the Canadian network refused to show his name or picture. The network ran an editorial Friday to give the reasoning behind the decision.

“It’s easy to report on the life of the killer, to scour his deranged Facebook page, to speculate about motive, but doing so could actually encourage the perception that his heinous acts are somehow justified,” the editorial reads. “We will not help give this killer his blaze of glory.”

Many shooters express a desire for attention or fame before their killings; the two Columbine shooters hoped Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would make a film about them. In the wake of mass shootings, media outlets descend on a community and seem to barrage the airwaves with details about the perpetrators — what they said on social media, how they dressed and what video games they played.

“With the unwitting cooperation of 24/7 media, he will become a national villain,” Vox‘s Ezra Klein wrote about the UCSB shooter two weeks ago. “And other sick young men will see him get the renown in death that they have have never been able to receive in life.”

On a related note, when news about a shooting somewhere breaks, the media should take note of NOT reporting misinformation. Virtually every single time some story breaks, maybe based on tweets, that someone, somewhere, got shot, the media goes on red alert. And, invariably the initial stories are wrong. Don’t fan the flames of panic based on no information.

(And, I deliberately did not mention the name of any of the shooters in this post).