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Is the media contributing to our country's mass shooting problem?

Apr 7, 2016

Flowers for the victims of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., on display of the steps of the Capitol in 2011.
Credit Medill DC / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

When a mass shooting takes place in the United States, it is the duty of the media to report the news. However, a recent article in Mother Jones cites research that suggests the sensationalizing of these killings might make the problem worse.

Six weeks ago in Kalamazoo, Uber driver Jason Dalton went on a shooting rampage between picking up passengers. Dalton has confessed to killing six people and wounding two others.

With mass shootings on the rise, the question has been asked: Does the media play a role in motivating these killings?

[Mass shootings are] an important and growing issue in our country and the news media needs to report on it aggressively and robustly. But there are some really interesting questions about how that should be done.

Mark Follman from Mother Jones joined Stateside to talk about the issue. He wrote about it in a recent article entitled How The Media Inspires Mass Shooters.

“[Mass shootings are] an important and growing issue in our country and the news media need to report on it aggressively and robustly,” said Follman. “But there are some really interesting questions about how that should be done.”

Follman highlights the importance of good reporting in the wake of mass shootings, which has played a big role in dispelling many of the rumors and false information that gets spread “like wildfire” on social media and race-to-be-first cable news networks.

At the heart of Follman’s article is a variety of research by mental health and law enforcement officials about the people who commit these crimes.

“It’s long been known that there’s been a copycat effect with this problem,” said Follman. “That mass shooters and mass killers admire and want to emulate famous predecessors. But it’s only within the last few years that more actual evidence from cases has been collected and showing this in very specific ways. What it signals is that there is really a potentially strong factor in the way that the media present these cases to the public and sensationalize them. That it is having an affect on people who may be thinking about committing a crime like this and who actually go out and do it.”
 

This is something that I think is really incumbent on us as journalists now to think about how you frame this information in terms of proportionality and details.

Follman references the shooting in Tucson where six people lost their lives and Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords was shot in the head. The “crazed” mug shot of the shooter was plastered all over newspapers, tabloids and cable news, giving him the attention that he was seeking with sensationalized headlines.

In addition to wanting attention, many of the shooters are seeking to “one-up” previous shooters. Some in terms of headlines and media coverage, others in body counts. According to Follman, five weeks after the shooting at a Virginia TV station that killed two people, the gunman at a community college in Oregon specifically expressed his admiration for the Virginia shooter and the media attention he received.   

“This is something that I think is really incumbent on us as journalists now to think about how you frame this information in terms of proportionality and details,” said Follman.

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the impact of social media on mass shooters and some recommendations and guidelines that experts in the field have put forth to Follman during his research.