For the third time since these columns began last year, here’s another column about a mass shooting, yet again at a school.
All sorts of people have many theories how to stop these violent school incidents. We’ve heard the extremes from ‘ban all guns’ to ‘add more guns’ to make schools and colleges safe. Firearms have been around for a long, long time.
Mass shootings on school campuses have only proliferated over the past few decades. Something has certainly changed for the worse, and it’s not necessarily the firearms. The firearms used in the recent shooting in Texas were both of 19th century technology. While everyone is focused on the firearms, magazine size and bullet types, maybe the focus should be on the people and why they do this.
Something is obviously wrong with a person who perpetrates these awful mass shootings whether at a school, a workplace or a public area. Even with a known psychiatric issue, it is difficult to imagine what could motivate a human to commit such a monstrous act as killing innocent people. A reason for these awful crimes that many feel is overlooked is the copycat effect. This needs consideration when trying to determine a motive for mass murder, particularly if what motivates a shooter is fame.
For years the news media has lived by an unwritten rule not to publicize the details of suicide deaths, other than a mention in the obituary of ‘died unexpectedly’. While it is polite for the media to not report the details associated with these type deaths, the real reason for media restraint is the “Werther Effect”. Information from more than one study in psychiatric medicine makes a direct connection between media reports and imitation behavior in others, known as copycats.
Worth reading is a 2016 study conducted by professors Dr. Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University that suggests “it may be in society’s best interest for news organizations to regulate both the amount and type of information that they supply” to the public about mass shootings. Their study, like the Werther Effect, found publicity about mass shootings actually contributed to the perpetuation of them. The study, Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect, suggests not naming shooters or showing their picture is a way to stop the copycat criminals. The study further said to focus on the victims because the name of the mass shooter doesn’t really matter.
The two people who committed the mass shooting at the Columbine High School in 1999 and died inside the school building were made famous by the media. Video showing them strutting around the school cafeteria with guns was played incessantly on the news. Believe it or not, those two have a twisted folk hero status along with a cult following known as “Columbiners”. Other school shooters have mentioned the Columbine killers in writings and suicide notes and who knows how many current disturbed young adults idolize them.
Because news is a business and return on investment is required, it will be difficult for the media to back away from the salacious stories, particularly 24/7 television cable news. The T.V. executives know sex, violence and controversy keep viewers watching.
If a viewer doesn’t turn away, the ratings go up and marketers will continue to pay for advertising time. After the initial reporting from the crime scene has run its course, and ratings go down, the reporters then interview neighbors of the murderer, or show the shooters Facebook page photos posing with weapons to keep our collective attention.
By showing a killer’s name and face in print or on television makes a once unknown high school loner into a celebrity which likely will inspire another disturbed person into action.
There are plenty of other approaches and strategies to stop school shootings, but ending the media contagion effect is one that is seldom noticed. The First Amendment grants freedom to the press, so government intervention or legislation is not likely to put an end to this style of reporting. It is up to editors, publishers, advertisers, viewers and readers to put an end to this.
Here are some suggestions on how to limit the fame of these criminals which might prevent a future copycat crime; if the shooters name is needed in reporting, discontinue using it after 24 hours; never use a photograph of the shooter unless the person remains at large; don’t publish shooters written manifestos which might inspire others. At some point in history the media decided suicide was not news worthy. It is probably time for the media to realize they can play a part in preventing further mass shootings by changing the way these events are reported.