Mass shootings are commonplace in the United States—according to one estimate, there have already been 173 in the year 2017 alone. Early Saturday morning, 25 people were shot in a nightclub in Little Rock, Arkansas. In mid-June, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise was one of the five people shot on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia. Scalise’s high-profile status led to intense media coverage of this particular incident, once again spurring debate about gun violence and gun control in the U.S.
Equally important, we must consider the reporting of mass shootings. Certain journalists and scholars — and even former U.S. President Barack Obama — suggest that the routine nature of mass shooting coverage contributes to “compassion fatigue,” a dulled sensitivity to crisis.
Research also indicates a connection between intense media coverage, “fame-seeking” perpetrators and subsequent mass shootings — termed the “copycat” effect. As a result of these disturbing findings, some organizations (such as No Notoriety), law enforcement officials, government officials and journalists are making the conscious choice to not name the perpetrators of mass shootings.
But certainly the decision to “not name” the perpetrator is atypical in journalistic coverage.
A recently published study — a collaboration from myself and three other media scholars — examined this issue and other attitudes toward news coverage of mass shootings, using data from a national survey of more than 1,300 U.S. newspaper/online journalists. Key study findings follow:
- Despite existing research showing a connection between news media coverage and a copycat effect, journalists were largely ambivalent about such a connection.
- Most journalists supported typical perpetrator coverage, including naming and publishing photos of the perpetrator, as well as a perpetrator’s statements, videos and/or manifestos.
- At the same time, journalists expressed strong support for stories that focused on survivors and community resilience in the aftermath of mass shootings. Journalists also largely supported longer-term coverage and coverage of potential solutions.
Study findings also examined how individual characteristics, journalistic practices and organizational factors influence attitudes.
- Editors were more satisfied with the current state of mass shooting coverage than both reporters and photographers. Editors were also more supportive of perpetrator coverage than all other types of news workers.
- Older journalists held a more favorable opinion of the state of mass shooting coverage and more strongly supported coverage of perpetrators.
- Non-white respondents were more likely to be critical of current practices of mass shooting coverage.
- Journalists at larger newspapers generally thought that the media were doing a “good job” covering mass shootings.
- Journalists who reflect contextualist values — journalists who emphasize longer-term coverage, social responsibility and responsible reporting — strongly supported coverage of victims and survivors.
Taken together, study results show that journalists generally supported a breadth of mass shooting coverage with the implication that citizens will use that information to make responsible choices. Accordingly, most journalists were in favor of perpetrator coverage and did not acknowledge a copycat effect. Indeed, it is a grim realization to think that the product of one’s work potentially contributes to further mass shootings. But given research findings supporting a copycat effect, journalists should be aware that their perceptions of their work don’t always match the work’s actual impact. A useful comparison in this case may be suicide coverage.
Zeynep Tufekci, a media and technology scholar, argues that naming or showing a photograph of the perpetrator once is not the issue; the real problem is that news media continuously loop perpetrator’s names, faces and manifestos. As such, Tufekci proposes that the news media develop “sensible guidelines” to covering mass shootings, much in the same way that they cover suicides.
Recognizing a copycat suicide effect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding the following in news coverage of suicides: simplistic explanations; repetitive, ongoing or excessive reporting; sensational coverage; “how-to” descriptions; glorification; and a focus on community expressions of grief. Instead, the CDC recommends that news coverage focus on help and support available in the community, tips and information about how to identify people who are at risk and/or information about risk factors. The adoption of these practices in covering mass shootings may help reduce the risk of a copycat effect.
And certainly some journalists in the survey acknowledged a copycat effect, reflecting a tension between those journalists who favor a more progressive approach and those who hold more traditional journalistic ideas.
Equally important, study findings show support for longer-term coverage and coverage of both community resilience and solutions. This finding is indicative of the growing practices of constructive journalism and solutions journalism.
Research findings suggest that those journalists who reflect contextualist values — as a more progressive approach to coverage — could play an important role in advancing changed reporting practices for mass shooting coverage.
Nicole Smith Dahmen is an assistant professor of visual communication at the University of Oregon.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via EUPOL Afghanistan