The night of Oct. 1, 2017 began as an exciting one for concertgoers who gathered to celebrate and share their love for country music at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Paradise, NV. Things took an unexpected turn at approximately 10 p.m. when a gunman opened fire on the defenseless crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. The gunman ultimately killed 59 people, including himself, and injured 546 others, making this the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history. When individuals across the country woke the following morning to learn of yet another mass shooting in the United States, the question immediately became what we, as a nation, could do to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future? In the aftermath of mass shootings, individuals often point to loose gun control laws, lack of resources for the mentally ill and our culture’s obsession with violence as possible explanations. While all of these factors certainly play a role in gun violence in the United States, an equally important trigger is often left out of the conversation. The media unintentionally offers fame and notoriety to the perpetrators in their coverage of mass shootings.
The FBI defines a mass shooting as “four or more shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter.” The number of mass shootings in the United States has skyrocketed since the 2000s. In 1998, the year before the infamous Columbine massacre occurred, there were only four documented mass shootings in the United States, as opposed to the 372 that were recorded in 2015. It is not coincidental that the rise of mass shootings in the United States directly corresponds with the growth of the internet and 24-hour cable coverage. In a digital age, there is simply no escaping the reality of mass murder. When tragedies such as the Las Vegas shooting occur, we hear about the event on cable television, the radio, our news feeds and social media for weeks on end. Much of this media coverage is focused on the shooter: what they look like, their personal history and their motives for carrying out the attack. The shooter, therefore, attains a degree of notoriety in our society. When evaluating the media and its coverage of mass shootings in recent years, the question ultimately becomes whether more shootings lead to more coverage, or more coverage leads to more shootings.
The media contagion effect, a term explored by Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University in their essay “Mass Shootings and The Media Contagion Effect,” asserts that, by focusing excessively on the perpetrators, the media directly inspires other mass shootings. This occurs because disturbed individuals see the attention that shooters receive and believe that they will also be rewarded with fame for committing a similar crime. The copycat effect is a subcategory of media contagion in which potential shooters draw inspiration from the writings and methods of previous killers. Copycat shooters are especially dangerous because in the majority of cases, their goal is to kill more people than their predecessor.
In 2015, research professor and statistician Sherry Towers of Arizona State University created a mathematical contagion model to test the “contagiousness” of mass shootings. It is critical to note that on average, one mass shooting occurs every 12.5 days in the United States. Towers discovered that for every three shootings that occur, at least one copycat incident occurs within 13 days of the initial attack. Though this finding indicates that a contagion exists, the model alone cannot determine whether it stems from media coverage. However, it is difficult to imagine how one shooter learned of another through means other than mass media or social media. This is further supported by the fact that the model did not indicate a regional contagion, suggesting that information about mass shooters is spreading to potential killers nationwide.
As of Oct. 14, there have been eight mass shootings in the 13 days since the Las Vegas attack. This is almost eight times greater than the national average. Given the extensive research done on media contagion, major news outlets have an ethical responsibility to change the way they cover mass shootings.
The “No Notoriety Campaign” challenges the media to take the following steps to help prevent mass shootings: limit the use of the shooters name and description of the killer unless they are still at large, refuse to share self-serving statements created by the shooter such as manifestos, recognize that the prospect of fame could inspire copycat crimes and agree to promote data and analysis from experts in relevant fields to help eliminate mass murder.
Though detailed information about the perpetrators of heinous acts undoubtedly catches the attention of curious individuals across the country, it is ultimately unnecessary in coverage of mass shootings. Rather than spread extraneous facts about any one shooter, the media should seek to honor the victims, give deserved attention to individuals who selflessly risked their lives to help other in the midst of the attack and publish significant findings from experts on issues such gun control and mental illness. By simply altering the focus in their coverage of mass shootings, the media has the power to limit senseless tragedies and make the United States a safer nation.