Lecture takes media to task over mass shootings

by | Sep 28, 2018 | Headlines, News

Galvin Zaldivar
News Reporter

Prevalence of mass shootings is on the rise and the media might be to blame, an American professor told a Humber President’s Lecture Series audience.

Mass shootings appear to be on the rise since 2000, from one or two incidents per year between 1950 and 2000, to at least 30 incidents in 2017, Jennifer Johnston of the University of Western New Mexico said last Tuesday during a talk entitled Mass Shootings and Media Contagion.

At the same time, Johnston contends that mass media has grown at a similar rate, and her research has implied a link between them.

The key to this link is what is known as Parasocial Relating, a concept in media psychology, she said.

Johnston said people take media at face value.

“That is to say, we subconsciously treat the people we see in media as real people, even if we don’t know them personally, or know that what we see isn’t real,” Johnston said.

Those who perpetrate mass shootings are most often driven by narcissism in the form of seeking fame, she said. Johnston added, however, mental illness or social isolation do play roles in some incidents.

She said a perpetrator is usually dissatisfied with their place in society, and is felt owed that standing and/or privilege, and so lash out if it means getting their message across.

If a person is highly susceptible to Parasocial Relating, then the fame-seeking or message-making motivation is validated by how the media portrays a previous mass shooting. That is what Johnston calls Media Contagion, which is how media coverage may inspire copycats.

It all comes down to how the media reports mass shootings, she said. In the days and weeks following a mass shooting, 60 per cent of headlines relate to shooters. Similarly, in examining over 9,000 images that cover mass shooting events, the ratio relating to the killers to victims was 16:1, Johnston said.

For most, it may be because the public is more comfortable with outrage against the shooter rather than grief for the victims, she said.

In 11 studies on media contagion, eight found direct links between mass shootings, with a new incident occurring within two weeks of another. A recent study by Amsterdam University-based professor Javier Garcia-Bernardo also looked at the direct effect of social media.

Johnston said Garcia-Bernardo found if the words “school shootings” appeared in at least 10 tweets for every million within 10 days, the likelihood of new incident occurring was 50 per cent and rose to 80 per cent after 19 days. This compounds so that every third shooting event almost guarantees a fourth, the 2015 study found.

This effect is not new, as the suicide contagion or the Werther effect is well known, to the extent that the media will not report on many suicides for fear of inspiring copycat incidents. Johnston said, in comparison, that single person homicides on the other hand do not follow this pattern.

In light of her research, Johnston called on the media to change how it reports mass shootings. The media should treat these incidents on par with reporting on suicides and sexual assault, without particular names or faces, she said.

“What we’re advocating is two major things,” she told Et Cetera after the talk at North campus. “Don’t name them, don’t name the shooter, don’t show their image.”

Any manifesto or ideological statements should be treated with caution as well, lest they inspire ideological allies, Johnston said.

Instead, coverage should focus on the experiences of victims and their communities, whether any opportunities to intervene had been missed, she said. And the public at large should practice restraint when it comes to the social media discourse surrounding a mass shooting.

To limit media contagion, the wisest course of action is to make it harder to validate the fame seeking motive, Johnston said.

“The research is very interesting,” said Humber English Professor Chandra Hodgson, a member of President’s Lecture Series Committee.

“It gives us a lot to think about in terms of our own culpability, almost, in … continuing to feed the harmful needs of these people who are seeking fame,” she said.

“[It’s in] someway playing to our desires, when they keep publicizing the names of attackers.”

Ian Gerrie, chair of the President’s Lecture Series Committee, found Johnston’s thesis “very timely.”

He said although she is based on an American context, “we’ve had unfortunately a lot of similar experiences here in Canada.” There were two incidents in Toronto and another in Fredericton, N.B., so far this year.

Gerrie said the lecture series intends on generating discussion and debate and the implications of the media contagion effect is a topic that would do that.