The study on the relationship between news coverage and mass shootings by Western New Mexico University psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Johnston and former Interdisciplinary Studies graduate student Andrew Joy continues gaining attention and respect worldwide.
In the wakes of the nation’s increasingly frequent mass shootings, Johnston gets called on to speak about the probable connection between mass shootings and the media coverage around them. She uses her platform as the expert on this subject to encourage more responsible media practices.
This fall, for example, Johnston has given interviews with The World Today (ABC Australia) and the online global business news site, Quartz, appearing most recently on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio’s morning program.
“I get a lot of response from other countries. I have been interviewed in Russia, Estonia, India and England, for example. I think they’re very concerned that the problem could spread to them. They want to understand how they might avoid it,” she said.
Johnston also authored a chapter on mental illness in “Mass Shootings in America: Understanding the Debates, Causes, and Responses,” edited by Jaclyn Schildkraut and due out in early 2018.
After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Johnston signed an open letter to the media asking them to develop a code of reporting, similar to that which they follow regarding suicides.
Originally presented at the annual American Psychological Association convention in Denver, Johnston and Joy’s paper argued the existence of homicide contagion, sampling research from five fields of study and documenting a sharp rise in mass shootings parallel to the increase of alternative and around-the-clock media channels.
Of the causes typically examined after mass shooting incidents—guns, mental illness and media coverage—the easiest to address is the media piece, Johnston said.
“Gun laws in the U.S. haven’t changed a great deal in the last fifteen years, nor have our mental health procedures and policies related to protecting people who might be dangerous to themselves or others. What has changed in the last fifteen years is media coverage,” Johnston said.
While homicide in the U.S. is overall down since 2000, mass shooting incidents increased threefold. “I believe that we would see a one-third decrease in mass shootings if the media adopted a Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them type of policy,” Johnston said. “By reporting on shared traits but not broadcasting the names or likenesses of mass shooters, the media can prevent would-be shooters from being sent over the edge.”
The open letter to the media that Johnston signed requested reporters reconsider their position on sharing so much detail about the shooters.
“I think we’re seeing a little bit of impact. After the Las Vegas shooting, I saw a few articles that did not name the shooter. A year ago, I don’t know that I saw any,” she said.
She also discourages the use of superlatives in media coverage.
“We have heard and we have read in some of the manifestos of previous shooters that they are trying to become the next, greatest known shooter by number of deaths. They seem to be trying to best each other,” Johnston said in her interview with The World Today. “We do see these headlines: The deadliest shooting in history. And that seems to be motivating shooters as well to get more powerful weapons that can do more damage in shorter time.”
Social media has an effect on contagion too. “When tweets rise above 10 per million talking about a mass shooting in a certain area, it increases the likelihood of another mass shooting 50 percent in the next two weeks. And if it continues to rise above 10 tweets per million, the odds go to 80 percent that another shooting will happen within 30 days,” she said.
In short, it is dangerous to report on anything that a person who is socially isolated, depressed and narcissistic can identify with and want to emulate.
“When they see someone in the media who is being given the fame that they seek, that someone who is considering an act like this in fantasy or even had some plans laid out who might not have otherwise committed those acts, does so because they identify with another shooter and feel motivated to either best that shooter’s kills or make a name for themselves as they go out in a blaze of glory,” she said. “There’s a lot the media can cover without giving in to what the shooter really seems to be after, which is fame.”