Does Media Coverage Inspire Copy Cat Mass Shootings?


Violent events are often covered by news outlets in great detail and spread immediately through mass media and social media. Experts believe that this media coverage can inspire others to copy these actions or commit similar crimes.[1] This is called the media contagion effect, and it happens with suicide, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings.

Shooters get enormous attention: their name, photo, motivations, and story are often shared for days following the event. The American Psychological Association points out that this “fame” is something that most mass shooters desire.[2] This sometime inspires a copycat shooting, where the potential shooter typically tries to kill more people than their predecessor.

The number of mass shootings in the U.S. has increased exponentially since the early 2000s.[3] On average, a mass shooting now occurs every 12.5 days. Before 2000, there were about three mass shootings per year. While the exact definition of a “mass shooting” is debated, a 2015 Congressional Research Service report defined a mass shooting as 4 or more killings in a single incident (not including the shooter).[4]

School shootings tend to get the most attention, and since 2000 on average there has been one school shooting every 31.6 days. In 2018, however, there has been an average of one school shooting (accidental or intentional) every week.[5] Each of these incidents spread through mass media and social media, which focus on the shooter and the shooter’s motivations.

One of the first widely reported mass shootings was at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. Two students killed 12 students and one teacher, and 23 others were injured. In the month that followed, 400 related incidents were reported across the country. Students called in bomb threats and praised the shooters’ actions. Some schools feared additional shootings and shut down temporarily.

In 2007, a Virginia Tech student killed 32 students and faculty at the university. Prior to the shooting, he expressed a desire in writing to repeat the shooting at Columbine. Since then, many shooters have cited the Virginia Tech gunman as an inspiration and others have threatened to kill more than the 32 victims killed.[6]

Studies indicate that the more media attention a shooter gets, the more likely the event will inspire a future mass shooter. For example, a 2015 study found that after a mass shooting, there was an increased chance of another one occurring in the next 13 days.[7] A 2017 study found that media coverage of a mass shooting may increase the frequency and lethality of future shootings, but the contagion period might not be within the first two weeks, but instead might inspire the frequency of mass shootings in the future.[8]

Social media spreads the news even faster. At the mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub, Las Vegas, and Parkland, survivors and witnesses sent videos and news of the events on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and text message.

Two weeks after the Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2018, 638 copycat threats targeted schools nationwide.[9] These threats are often jokes or hoaxes that spread through social media, but they can still be harmful.

As long as the media continue to focus their news stories on the attacker, it is likely that the contagion will continue.[10] The American Psychological Association recommends that mass media deny shooters the fame they desire by not sharing so many details about them and instead direct their attention to the victims and their stories. Campaigns like Don’t Name Them (a campaign of Texas State University) and No Notoriety (created by a couple in honor of their son who died in the Colorado movie theater shooting) urge the media to cover tragic incidents without naming the shooters. Decreasing media contagion could reduce the number of mass shootings, but other public health steps are also needed, such as making it more difficult to obtain guns, and especially assault weapons.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

References:

  1. Thompson, D. (2017). Mass Shootings in America Are Spreading Like a Disease. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 14, 2018 from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/11/americas-mass-shooting-epidemic-contagious/545078/.
  2. American Psychological Association. (2016). “Media Contagion” Is Factor in Mass Shootings, Study Says. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/08/media-contagion.aspx. Accessed on March 12, 2018
  3. Duwe, Grant. (2017). “Mass Shootings Are Getting Deadlier, Not More Frequent.” Politico Magazine. Retrieved March 13, 2018 from www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/10/04/mass-shootings-more-deadly-frequent-research-215678.
  4. Federal Bureau of Investigations. (n.d.). “Active Shooter Resources.” Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.fbi.gov/about/partnerships/office-of-partner-engagement/active-shooter-resources.
  5. There has been, on average, 1 school shooting every week this year. (2018, March 08). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/02/us/school-shootings-2018-list-trnd/index.html
  6. Flynn, C., & Heitzmann D. (2008). Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Trauma and Its Aftermath. The Counseling Psychologist. 20 (10): 1-11
  7. Towers, S., Gomez-Lievano, A. Khan, M., et al. (2015). Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings. PLOS One. 10(7): e0117259. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117259
  8. Lankford, A and Tomek, S. (2017). Mass Killings in the United States from 2006 to 2013: Social Contagion or Random Clusters. The American Association of Suicidology. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12366
  9. Hayes, C. (2018). After Florida shooting, more than 600 copycat threats have targeted schools. USA Today.
  10. Kelly, E. (2017). The Wellesley News. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://thewellesleynews.com/2017/10/19/media-contagion-inspires-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states