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New Study Connects Media Coverage to Rise In Mass Shootings


guns via shutterstock It’s not a secret that there’s a mass shooting problem in the United States, but trying to find a way to fix it is where it always gets… contentious, to say the least.  However, two researchers from Western New Mexico University have a fairly simple idea that could theoretically help make a dent: Stop putting a spotlight on the killers, because that makes it more likely for troubled people to empathize with them.

According to Jennifer Johnston, PhD, who co-authored the study (summarized here) on the effects of media on mass shootings, the idea is rooted in a similar protocol for covering celebrity suicides that was put forth by the psychiatric community in 1997. “It was postulated that suicide might be contagious, probably in the late ’70s, ” Johnston told “Studies kind of came and went, and we were trying to replicate whether this was true, and there was enough evidence that people who were on the edge and feeling suicidal, if they saw a celebrity had committed suicide, or someone in their community, it could tip the scales and they could attempt suicide as well.”

In the ’90s, the Center for Disease Control advised the news media to pull back on reporting manner of death when a celebrity committed suicide, and when that policy was enacted, it made a dent in the suicide rate. The functional equivalent for mass shootings, according to Johnston, would be to not fixate on the killer. Johnston and co-author Andrew Joy, BS wrote in the study that “If the mass media and social mediafess enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce, or re-tweet the names, faces, detailed histories, or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in the span of one to two years.”

While the study doesn’t get into variables like national changes in gun laws and mental health treatment, that’s because they’re not what’s changed in the last 15 years. The news cycle and access to information is, however, monumentally different from where it was 15 to 20 years ago. “Obviously, we cannot tell the media what to do, and we can’t dictate what free press should be,” Johnston added when she spoke to “But we can make recommendations and the media can consider them. […] That part is very much in the control of the media.”

What should we be doing, then? “Allow the law enforcement to gather the kind of details about the killer that they need. They’re the only ones that are really gonna make use of that information to prevent future crimes,” Johnston further explained. “Focus on victims, focus on impact, focus on community response. You could focus on aggregate traits of killers, look at them in general, talk to experts about it. Those are the kinds of things that can go into a news broadcast while leaving out details of a specific person in that place and time who did the crime.”

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David Bixenspan is a writer, editor, and podcaster based in New York.