Does "Media Contagion" Help Explain Mass Shootings?

 While the potential role of "media contagion" in copycat deaths following high-profile suicides has long been recognized, can it help explain the rising number of mass shootings in recent years?  A new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association suggests that it can.  Jennifer B. Johnston and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University examined data on mass shootings collected by news agencies, victim advocacy groups, and the FBI as well as academic studies of mass shootings.  What they found was that the prevalence of mass shootings has risen dramatically in conjunction with media coverage.  |At this point, can we determine which came first?" asked Jennifer Johnston.  "Is the relationship merely unidirectional: More shootings lead to more coverage? Or is it possible that more coverage leads to more shootings?”

To understand how media contagion could lead to more mass shootings, Johnston and Joy suggest that the overwhelming majority of mass shooters are white males between the age of 20 and 50 who often regard themselves as "victims of injustice."  Along with mental health issues such as depression and social isolation,  they also also likely to experience bullying or ostracism, something which makes them more likely to develop fantasies about homicide and "getting even."  Many of these shooters also experience pathological narcissism with a strong desire for fame.   Given that mass shooters typically become media celebrities due to  round-the-clock newspaper and television coverage, marginalized individuals who feel "cheated' out of their rightful place in society may well see carrying out a mass shooting as a way of getting noticed.

In an interview with Science Daily,  Johnston cited recent statistics showing that the rate of mass shootings has risen from a pre-2000 level of three incidents a year to the current average of a new shooting taking place every 12.5 days on average (school shootings occur every 31.6 days on average)

While this violent contagion media effect was first suggested back in the 1980s, the role that the copycat effect may be playing in mass shootings is becoming harder to ignore.  Along with the contagion effect linked to news media,, Johnston and Joy also suggest that social media is also playing a role by glorifying shooters and downplaying victims (or even denying their existence altogether such as with recent accusations that the Sandy Hook shooting was actually a "false flag" operation).   

While news organizations have become more cautious in reporting celebrity suicides due to concerns about copycats, they show little of that restraint when it comes to mass shooters. Though citing the public's right to know, the graphic news coverage that follows shootings seem more about attracting readers than keeping people informed.    “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,” Jennifer Johnson said. 

One possible solution would be to encourage news organizations to be more cautious about how they report mass shootings.   Johnston and Joy pointed out that copycat suicides declined after 1997 when the Centers for Disease Control released recommendations for improving news coverage for celebrity suicides.   “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,” Johnston said. “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.”

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