Study Links News Coverage With Mass Shootings

A recently presented review study on the relationship between news coverage and mass shootings in America has garnered international attention to a Western New Mexico University professor and graduate student.

The 25-page review was originally presented at the annual American Psychological Association convention in August by Dr. Jennifer Johnston, WNMU Professor of Psychology, and Andrew Joy, graduate student in Interdisciplinary Studies.

“More than summarizing, we unified a number of bodies of research to argue for the existence of homicide contagion,” said Johnston.

The review sampled research from five fields of study: criminology, psychology, sociology, communications, and public health. They arrived at the conclusion that there is a probable connection between the rise of mass shootings and the media coverage of those events.

“We began by defining the term mass shooter as an individual that either attempted or successfully killed three or more people,” said Joy. “By examining that entirety, shared traits became more apparent—these individuals felt depressed, isolated, and mistreated.”

The study documents a sharp rise in mass shootings since 2000, following the increase of alternative media channels.

“The first tipping point was in 1996 when news channels like CNN rose to the number one position,” said Johnston. “We went from two to three times of coverage a day to 24 hours.”

A second tipping point came in 2006 with the rise of social media including Facebook and Twitter, where news agencies and everyday people share information in real time.

“From 2000 to 2015 there was a three fold increase in mass shootings,” said Johnston.

Johnston and Joy are calling for a willful adoption of the Don’t Name Them campaign, encouraging news media to move their focus from the suspects to the victims, allowing law enforcement officials to focus on the suspects.

“There are people that may have a profile with a homicidal tendency, and when they see a news story focusing on mass shooters, it may encourage their own violent behavior,” said Joy.

The Don’t Name Them campaign was created by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University, where more than 80,000 law enforcement officers have been trained on how to react to active shooters.

With an increase in the adoption of the Don’t Name Them campaign, researchers are hoping that a reduced focus on the shooters will also reduce the contagion effect, a relationship between initial incidents, news coverage of those incidents, and the occurrence of a follow-up incident.

“According to mathematical contagion models, there is a link between the social media mentions of an incident and the likelihood that another incident would occur in short order,” said Johnston.

Researchers found that the decision by news organizations to minimize the coverage of suicide incidents in the 1990s was paralleled by a decline in suicides.

“We would like to see that killers are talked about in aggregate, describing their shared qualities, rather than about them individually,” said Johnston. “It’s not that we are asking for events not to be covered, just avoid mention of the killers’ names, faces, and histories.”

Johnston and Joy’s review article has been submitted for publication to the Journal of Media Psychology.

It can be read here: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/08/media-contagion-effect.pdf

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