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Mass shootingChanges needed to news coverage of mass shooters: Researchers

Published 6 October 2017

Reducing news coverage of rampage shooters’ personal information, like their names and photos, could be a deterrent to future mass shooters, according to researchers. The researchers identify three consequences of current news coverage, which typically includes publishing names and faces of mass shooters in initial and follow-up coverage: mass shooters’ fulfillment and incentive to achieve notoriety; competition among offenders to maximize victim fatalities; and copycat and contagion effects.

Reducing news coverage of rampage shooters’ personal information, like their names and photos, could be a deterrent to future mass shooters, according to a researcher at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Adam Lankford, UA associate professor of criminology, recently authoreda paper published by the American Behavioral Scientist which explores the history of fame-seeking rampage shooters and news coverage of mass shooters, and recommends collective changes in how news media cover mass shootings.

Lankford, along with Dr. Eric Madfis, associate professor of social work and criminal justice at the University of Washington at Tacoma, suggest the changes because the practical but divisive proposal of gun control legislation does not “seem politically feasible.”

And, despite previous data that shows many mass shooters struggle with mental health problems and suicidal tendencies, broader issues in mental health, like proper diagnosis and the reliability of data to identify potential attackers, make the approach difficult to successfully implement.

The paper identifies three consequences of current news coverage, which typically includes publishing names and faces of mass shooters in initial and follow-up coverage: mass shooters’ fulfillment and incentive to achieve notoriety; competition among offenders to maximize victim fatalities; and copycat and contagion effects.

UA says that the paper referenced internet messages and suicide notes about fame by the 2007 Nebraska mall shooter and the 2011 Tucson shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter’s manifesto and the Columbine shooters’ desire to cause the “most deaths in U.S. history” to illustrate each consequence and the similarities between shooters.

“Because many attackers explicitly admit that they want fame and directly reach out to media organizations to get it, it has become essentially indisputable that as a society, we have been helping them achieve their goals,” Lankford said. “And, unfortunately, the offenders who kill more victims to get more publicity appear to be accurately exploiting predictable patterns in media behavior.”

Lankford proposes news media:

— Do not name the perpetrator

— Do not use photos or likenesses of the perpetrator

— Stop using the names, photos or likenesses of past perpetrators

— Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired

Some of these measures have been implemented by news media in other countries, and there’s precedent for exceptions in coverage, like refraining from showing fans running across the field at sporting events and not publishing the names of victims of sexual assault.

Lankford said potential challenges of information leaks, offender self-promotion and the rarity of escaped suspects in mass shootings shouldn’t discourage nationwide implementation of his suggested news standards. UA notes that he, along with 140 scholars, professors and law enforcement professionals have signed an open letter encouraging news media to incorporate the changes to their coverage.

“Many actors, authors, composers, inventors, musicians, reporters and journalists would be far less motivated—and might simply give up and try something else — if they knew that no matter what they did, no one would ever know their names,” Lankford said. “So under similar constraints, how many prospective mass shooters would give up their attack plans and do something else instead?

“It may be impossible to forecast an exact number, but even a small reduction in mass killings would make a big difference to the victims who avoid tragic deaths, and their friends and families.”

— Read more in Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis, “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 (5 September 2017)