The Media’s Role In Preventing Mass Shootings

Mass shootings involving strangers are occurring more frequently in the U.S. Researchers are increasingly recognizing that these events seem to spread in populations like illnesses do. In fact, there is a growing sense that a kind of “contagion” effect occurs with mass shootings. In other words, when a mass shooting happens, it has an impact on others in the population beyond just the event -- it actually makes it slightly more likely someone else will act as a copycat.

If this analysis is correct, it would be extremely valuable to identify any ingredients or agents that might increase or decrease the risk of “contagion” and make any reasonable attempt to address these factors. We know for example that people who have engaged in incidents of domestic violence have a higher risk of perpetrating mass shootings. Thus it would make sense to limit access to firearms to domestic abusers as one preventive step.

There is reason to think that media reporting might have an impact on increased risk for copycat behavior in mass shootings. We know that mass shootings of strangers tend to occur in clusters. There is also substantial evidence that suicides in a community tend to occur in clusters as well and there is very strong evidence that how the media reports on suicides can raise or lower risk of subsequent “copycat” suicides in a community.

With this in mind, an international group of individual specialists and organizations worked together to develop suggested guidelines for media reporting on mass shooting. This group, led by Dr. Dan Reidenberg of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) included researchers and policy makers from leading US and international suicide and violence prevention groups, media organizations, universities and governmental agencies. The Recommendations have recently been published online:

The suggestions in many ways parallel those around reporting on suicide. Reporting ideally ought to be as low key and undramatic as possible. Lengthy and detailed descriptions of the shooter, florid pictures of the shooter or of the weapons used, discussions which present simple explanations or single motives for these tragedies and discussions which make the perpetrator appear heroic or martyr-like in any way are unhelpful and may increase chances of copycat behavior.

These recommendations also have several other goals. Insensitive reporting can further traumatize those close to victims and other community members as well. And responsible reporting should serve to-as much as possible-limit further trauma to survivors, those close to them and the surrounding communities. Further, reporting on mass shooting often focuses attention to perceived or presumed connections between mental illness and violent behavior. Reporting of mass shootings, if handled thoughtfully, should strive to limit this mistaken perception and educate people about mental illness and the value and importance of seeking and receiving care when it is needed.

While this is only one piece of the complex puzzle of these tragic events, we hope that the media carefully reviews and begins making use of this potentially life-saving information.

It was an honor to serve as a part of the group that developed these recommendations.

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