Media Coverage of Mass Shootings

As I write these words, one week has passed since the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. As usual, it seems like the right and wrong time to write an article about gun violence in America. Right in the sense that these attacks continue to happen far more often than they should. Wrong in that I don’t want my words to seem an insensitive, irrational and fearful reaction to this latest tragedy.

Sadly, gun violence, not just the mass shootings like the one in Thousand Oaks, happens every day. Last year, there were 2,785 shootings in my home city of Chicago. The vast majority of those shootings are the result of gang warfare, other criminal activity or personal disputes. Yet incidents like the one in Thousand Oaks seem to stem from different motives. And while each mass shooting prompts a new round of political squabbling over gun control, mental health, freedom, safety and a host of other issues, we can at least do better in how these shootings are portrayed by the media. In particular, the current coverage of mass shootings both encourages aspiring mass murderers who dream of infamy and normalizes such acts of violence for people who might not otherwise commit murder.

Stop Scorekeeping Mass Shootings

Following last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, Dave Cullen, who wrote a celebrated account of the shooting at Columbine High School, implored the media to stop scorekeeping mass murder. Cullen specifically objected to the use of “awarding” descriptors like “biggest” or “deadliest” to mass shootings. These terms further the aims of killers looking to gain recognition through their violent acts. To illustrate Cullen’s point, compare ESPN’s SportsCenter coverage of Kobe Bryant’s eighty-one-point game and CNN’s coverage of the Las Vegas shooting:

The ESPN video, now almost thirteen years old, doesn’t display a visual tally of Bryant’s point total. Most contemporary highlights of such games do. But anchor Stuart Scott provides a running total: Bryant’s “thirteenth forty-point game this year,” his “fifth fifty-point game this season,” the “first player since [Michael] Jordan in ’87 [with] two sixty-point games in one season,” and finally his seventieth, seventy-second (a new Los Angeles Lakers’ record), seventy-fourth, seventy-ninth, eightieth and eighty-first points. Scott heaps additional superlatives on Bryant’s performance. He reminds viewers that Bryant’s eighty-one points are the “second most” in a game in NBA history and represents a total that “has not been done in forty-four years.”

Similarly, the CNN video, which aired the day after the shooting, displays stats at the bottom of the screen indicating the number of people killed and injured in the attack. If you search for previous news coverage of the attack, you can see these casualty counts tick up in the hours after the shooting. The headline at the bottom also refers to the attack as the “Deadliest mass shooting in American history.” Anchor John King reiterates this superlative at the start of the video. And like the SportsCenter coverage of Bryant’s career game, there’s even live footage of the actual attack.

It’s easy to imagine kids across America and around the world watching that Kobe highlight and going out to their driveways or local playgrounds and shooting baskets until they had totaled eighty-one points. And it’s not hard to imagine a much, much smaller group of people nurturing plans for their own mass shootings after seeing the brazen display of statistics following the Las Vegas attack. If the media uses similar imagery and language to portray the two incidents, we should expect a similar response from those predisposed to appreciate those storylines. As Cullen puts it, “It’s clear there are 2 ways to get instant infamy: 1) Kill in creative/unique/shocking way, or 2) Break some records.”

The Threshold Theory

But there’s a further issue with the way the media reports mass shootings. This sensationalized coverage not only suggests mass murder as a path to instant fame. It also makes such violence a possibility for people who are not previously disposed to commit such horrific acts. In The New Yorker article “Thresholds of Violence,” author Malcolm Gladwell appeals to the work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter to explain why a young man who didn’t fit the profile of other mass shooters confessed to planning to kill his family and attack his school and was building bombs and had multiple firearms in his bedroom.

According to Gladwell, Granovetter wanted to explain “situations where outcomes do not seem intuitively consistent with the underlying individual preferences,” that is, situations in which people act in opposition to who they are or what they believe is right. Granovetter used riots as an example. A riot begins when a particularly hotheaded person takes violent action, such as throwing a rock through a storefront window, in reaction to a slight offense. Next comes a person who will react to the same minor offense if she sees someone else do it first. Then comes a person who will react if he sees two people do it first. And so on. So each instance of rock-throwing lowers the threshold for subsequent would-be rioters. People who would normally feel opposed to such displays of violence become involved when they see enough people taking part.

Gladwell extends Granovetter’s theory to the recent spate of mass shootings. He refers to the phenomenon as “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before.” For example, one of the Columbine shooters specifically cited the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in his journal and hoped to top the casualty count of that attack. And several mass shooters since then have pointed to Columbine as an influence. But Columbine and other subsequent shootings also lowered the threshold for people who don’t fit the common mass killer profile.

“He was a good person. He always believe[d] in inner peace,” a friend said of a shooter who killed two people in a Maryland shopping mall before killing himself. The young man had a fascination with plant biology and wanted to become a chef. He did complain to his doctor of hearing voices, but those voices were “non-specific, non-violent and really not directing him to do anything.” Prototypical mass shooters don’t have long-term ambitions or hobbies so distinct from their desire to kill. Some have reported hearing voices, but they usually describe those voices specifically directing them to commit mass violence. Instead, Gladwell argues, Columbine and other shootings allowed people like the Maryland shooter who would not have been violent in most circumstances to join this slow-motion riot.

Potential mass shooters may be attracted by the possibility of infamy. Potential rioters may be attracted by the idea of rebelling against authority and the entrenched status quo. That attraction increases when the act in question gets publicized and ranked.

And media portrayals of violence can enhance this threshold effect. Media coverage provides exposure to acts of violence, thereby reaching more people who could be susceptible to lowered thresholds. Additionally, a certain kind of media coverage increases the threshold effect even further. Returning to Granovetter’s riot example, imagine news coverage of a riot that described it as the “largest,” “longest,” “most destructive,” etc. event of its kind. Such coverage adds an emotional appeal on top of the threshold theory.

Gladwell and Granovetter’s argument assumes there is something attractive about the act in question. Potential mass shooters may be attracted by the possibility of infamy. Potential rioters may be attracted by the idea of rebelling against authority and the entrenched status quo. That attraction increases when the act in question gets publicized and ranked. “My name could be on TV if I kill that many people,” thinks the potential shooter. “I could be part of the largest riot in history,” thinks the potential rioter. Call it the threshold-plus-one theory.

Victims of the latest in the cycle of American mass shootings
Victims of the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California ( Top (left to right): Jake Dunham, Kristina Morisette, Blake Dingman, Telemachus Orfanos, Noel Sparks, Daniel Manrique. Bottom (left to right): Sean Adler, Cody Gifford-Coffman, Justin Meek, Alaina Housley, Ron Helus, Mark Meza Jr. Read their brief biographies here.

Put Victims First

All this is not to say the media should refrain from covering mass shootings altogether. These tragic events remain major news and should get reported. And the blame for these attacks does not rest with the media, but with the shooters themselves. That said, it is possible to report mass shootings in a way that minimizes the influence on future potential killers. First off, coverage of a mass shooting should begin with a concern for public safety. In the early stages and immediate aftermath of the attack, the media can play a vital role in helping the public steer clear of danger and letting them know when the shooter is no longer a threat.

From that point forward, the shooter should no longer be the focus of the story. Instead, coverage should shift to the victims. Help survivors inform their families and friends they are safe. Tell the stories the survivors and the friends and families of the victims want us to know. Share the life stories of those killed in the attack. Relay the victims’ grief, desires and calls to action. Pay attention to the innocent people who really matter instead of aggrandizing someone who committed the worst crime imaginable.

This latter point should serve as the primary focus for those who report on mass shootings. When news outlets tally casualties and rank victim counts, they play to the aspirations of murderers and offer a path to infamy for future killers. Such coverage also lowers the threshold to mass violence, making it a possibility for those who might otherwise remain nonviolent. Instead of granting undeserved attention to murderers, media coverage of mass shooting should focus on victims, survivors and their families. News coverage is not to blame for the continuing cycle of mass shootings. But the media has an opportunity to help minimize the likelihood of copycat crimes and lowered thresholds of violence.