Alex Pew, Lauren Goldbeck, Caroline Halsted, and Diana Zuckerman, PhD, National Center for Health Research
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. This is often called the media contagion effect, and it happens with suicide, terrorist attacks, and mass shootings. Other experts report that a better explanation is the tendency for people to imitate behaviors that get a lot of attention.
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. 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. On average, a mass shooting has occurred every 47 days from June 2015 until now. 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), and this definition is frequently used.
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. 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. That shooting got more attention on CNN than the death of Princess Diana. 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.
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. A 2017 study found that media coverage of a mass shooting may increase the frequency and lethality of future shootings for much longer than two weeks.
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. In addition, communities developed opline that treat the shooters as heroes and create fans and followers who obsess about the shooters, wanting to imitate them in terms of how they dress, expressions they use, and how many people they kill.
Two weeks after the Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2018, 638 copycat threats targeted schools nationwide. 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 these copycats will continue. Dr. Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama has conducted several key studies of the media coverage of mass shootings and the motivations of the shooters. For example, he found that between 2010 and 2017, some mass shooters got more media attention in the month following the attack than the most famous celebrities, such as Brad Pitt. In the months following a shooting, the shooters continued to get more attention than professional athletes and only slightly less than film and TV stars. Other researchers have found that the more people who are killed in mass shootings, the more media coverage of the shooters and the event, in terms of front page coverage, photos and information about the shooters, size of the photos of the shooters, and number and length of the articles about the shootings.[14, 15]
Lankford also studied 24 mass shooters who openly admitted they wanted fame or contacted the media directly to get it. Studies of mass shooters that are based on available documentation and interviews found that many had narcissistic personalities that crave fame and attention; narcissistic personality disorder is often not considered a mental illness.
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 the FBI and 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 or describing their lives or motivations. By reducing the fame and attention that mass shooters receive, there will be fewer obsessive fans that become copycat shooters. This strategy has already been shown to be effective regarding teen suicides: Less media coverage has resulted in fewer copycats.
Of course, media attention is just one issue that contributes to mass shootings. Since copycat shooters are often aiming to kill even more people than previous shooters, reducing their access to guns and especially to automatic weapons is especially important. This can be accomplished by making it more difficult for some individuals to obtain guns (such as Red Flag laws and background checks) and limiting everyone’s access to all assault weapons and other weapons of war.
- 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/.
- 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
- 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.
- Berkowitz, B., et al. (2019). “More and deadlier: Mass shooting trends in America.” Washington Post. Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/05/more-deadlier-mass-shooting-trends-america/.
- 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.
- 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
- Lankford, A. and Madfis, E. (2017). “Don’t name them, don’t show them, but report everything else: A pragmatic proposal for denying mass killers the attention they seek and deterring future offenders.” American Behavioral Scientist.Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002764217730854.
- Flynn, C., & Heitzmann D. (2008). Tragedy at Virginia Tech: Trauma and Its Aftermath. The Counseling Psychologist. 20 (10): 1-11
- 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
- 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
- Raitanin, J., and Okasanen, A. (2018). “Global online subculture surrounding school shootings.” American Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764218755835.
- Hayes, C. (2018). After Florida shooting, more than 600 copycat threats have targeted schools. USA Today.
- 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
- Schildkraut, J., Elsass, H. J., and Meredith, K. (2017). “Mass shootings and the media: why all events are not created equal.” Journal of Crime and Justice. Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0735648X.2017.1284689?journalCode=rjcj20.
- Dahmen, N. S. (2018). “Visually reporting mass shootings: U.S. newspaper photographic coverage of three mass school shootings.” American Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764218756921.
- Bushman, B. (2017). “Narcissism, fame seeking, and mass shootings.” American Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved August 26, 2019 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002764217739660.