Media coverage on mass shootings needs cutting back

[TW: This article contains discussion of suicide, gun violence and death.]

In “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a German novel published in 1774, protagonist Young Werther falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman named Charlotte. Unfortunately for him, she is engaged to another man, Albert. As the fact that he can’t have her sinks in, he falls into a deep depression, which culminates in his suicide.

After the novel was published, reports of suicide by gunshot—exactly the method Werther used—spiked (The New York Times, “Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths,” 03.18.1987). As a result, the critically acclaimed novel was banned in some countries, and the term “Werther effect,” which refers to the phenomenon of copycat suicide, was coined in 1974 (Open Access Government, “The Werther effect – About the handling of suicide in the media,” 05.17.2018). The “Werther” cluster was the first of many: In contemporary times, they occur frequently, both regionally and nationally, and particularly following the suicide or attempted suicide of a famous person.

In addition, after a celebrity commits suicide, people similar in age and gender to the celebrity are at greater risk of suicide. The suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams, for instance, preceded a 10 percent rise in suicides in the general U.S. population over the next five months, including an almost 13 percent increase in men aged 30 to 44 and a 32.3 percent increase in suicides by hanging (The Washington Post, “Robin Williams’s Suicide Was Followed by a Sharp Rise in ‘Copycat’ Deaths,” 02.07.2018).

The copycat effect led to the creation of guidelines about suicide coverage. Today, though nothing legally enforceable exists, media outlets take reporting on suicide very seriously. First and foremost, suicides of obscure persons are rarely reported today. In cases where an individual’s status makes their death relevant to the general public, their method of suicide is typically not given, the death is rarely sensationalized and a sidebar with suicide-risk warning signs is often included.

These media guidelines are limited to suicide; the copycat effect, however, is not. In his book “The Copycat Effect,” Loren Coleman, a former consultant for the Maine Youth Suicide Program, examines how many shocking human-inflicted tragedies, such as mass shootings, spike after the media gives the first incident widespread attention.

This is correlational evidence, of course— other factors that cause these events may simply go through cycles, and the first incident may have been destined to be the first of many, reported or not. However, the cause-and-effect relationship suggested makes intuitive sense: One individual has a novel idea and executes it, people hear about it on the news and a small percentage of them are then inspired to do the same.

There are documented instances of mass shooters expressing admiration for predecessors. An Oregon gunman commented on the sensationalization of a prior Virginia gunman, stating, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight” (The Daily Beast, “Umpqua Gunman Chris Harper Mercer Hated Religion Online,” 10.02.2015).

Another shooter mailed a series of videos of himself to NBC News in which he compared himself to the shooters at Columbine High School eight years prior and expressed hope that his own shooting would bear “children” (Denver Post, “Cho Idolized Columbine Killers,” 04.18.2007).

Based on these case studies, it is clear that needlessly extensive coverage of mass shootings in the news has the dangerous potential to cause even more mass shootings. Despite this, there are no agreed-upon media guidelines for covering mass shootings. As a result, whenever one occurs, it is given national publicity. Moreover, media outlets do not simply report the facts in a solemn tone. They frequently provide both the identity of the shooter (giving them publicity) and their methods and choice of weapon (giving those watching a template for how to execute a shooting of their own).

The bottom line is that, like most teen suicides, mass shootings are generally isolated events that don’t affect the nation at large. There is therefore no need to oversaturate the news with this type of tragedy and risk inspiring others to imitate them. In addition, they ought not scare you, because the numbers prove that you are unlikely to die in one—only 1,102 people have died in the United States in mass shootings since August 1, 1966, compared to the 11,622 who died in the United States in 2015 alone (The Washington Post, “The Terrible Numbers That Grow With Each Mass Shooting,” 03.14.2018; Vox, “Mass Shootings Are Rare In The United States,” 06.13.2016).

Moreover, mass shootings do not make for a strong argument in the gun control debate, because they account for only a small fraction of gun deaths: Only 40 gun deaths in the United States out of 7,075 so far this year, and 344 out of 15,549 last year, came in mass shootings (The Washington Post, “The Terrible Numbers That Grow With Each Mass Shooting,” 03.14.2018; The Trace, “The First Estimate of 2017 Gun Deaths Is In,” 05.15.2018). Media coverage should be reserved for newsworthy events where the benefits of broadcasting them outweigh the costs. Given this guideline, the risks of broadcasting news about mass shootings far exceed the potential to do good, and thus they should not be featured so heavily in the news.

If mass shootings no longer made headlines, we would live in a world where potentially dangerous individuals were not given a blueprint for causing needless harm and suffering, and we would incur little cost. Therefore, media outlets should establish guidelines for covering mass shootings similar to those for suicides.

Such protocols should first of all minimize needless coverage of mass shootings. The media no longer reports the suicides of average people. In a similar vein, most mass shootings should not be given coverage either. Shootings should be covered only if they are somehow relevant to the general public, such as if individuals in the public sphere are affected. When they must be reported, the shooter should never be identified, as it is difficult to make a role model out of someone about whom you know nothing. Their motives should never be given, since someone who agrees with them might become inspired to do the same. And, to prevent people from knowing how to repeat the crime, their methods should never be stated.

Until such guidelines are implemented, it is simple enough for us to tune out when violence is depicted for no reason. As consumers of news media, it’s our prerogative to choose what is newsworthy to us. If we simply decide that mass shootings are not worth the clicks, news outlets will invest less time in covering them and give front-page attention to other stories.

The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255 and the Vassar Listening Center can be reached at 845-235-2062.

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