Western New Mexico University professor Dr. Jennifer Johnston, who studies the relationship between news coverage and mass shootings, addressed the federal commission on school safety in Washington, D.C., this summer.
Dr. Johnston had the ears of U.S. Education Secretary and Commission Chair Betsy DeVos, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen while briefing the commission on her research, which points to a possible three-fold decrease in mass shootings if the media did not name shooters.
“From 1950s to the year 2000, there were only about two incidents per year. Last year was a record of 30 mass shootings in 2017,” Dr. Johnston said. “In an examination of the usual suspects and potential causes of mass shootings, media contagion is the one potential cause that has a corresponding meteoric rise.”
Eleven studies, including Dr. Johnston’s out of WNMU, have evaluated whether media contagion is real, and all have found a contagion effect. “For one incident, there’s a 22 increased chance of another mass shooting occurring shortly. When you get to three or four incidents, there’s a 100 percent chance that we will have a fifth school shooting in 30 days. There’s a cumulative effect of the impact of these shootings,” she said.
Dr. Johnston cautioned the commission against treating mass shootings like single homicides. “Mass shootings are a different animal. It’s against type in terms of what may be triggering it,” she said.
Mass shooters often share three main traits, according to Dr. Johnston’s research. “They tend to be depressed to the point of being suicidal. They tend to be socially isolated or have a recent social connection loss. And they tend to be narcissistic but specifically fame-seeking,” she said.
The media assures mass shooters fame by discussing perpetrators in detail, Dr. Johnston told the commission. “[In media coverage following mass shootings,] the shooter was pictured 16 times more often than any victim. Their images were also larger in size,” she said. “Fame is a major motivator for this type of person. For some reason, I think they see fame as a remedy for the suffering and their suicidal state of mind.”
Concluding her presentation, Dr. Johnston recommended the commission ask the media to immediately adopt the Don’t Name Them campaign. “Do not show the shooter’s face. Do not say their name. Do not go into detail about their backgrounds,” she said.
Dr. Johnston also offered her help in the event the Center for Disease Control convenes a working group on the topic of media contagion, similar to the 1984 group that recommended a media policy to prevent suicide contagion.
This particular meeting of the federal commission on school safety was titled “The Ecology of Schools: Fostering a Cultural of Human Flourishing and Developing Character” and took place on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The commission held the meeting to discover how entertainment, media, cyberbullying and social media may affect violence and student safety.
Dr. Johnston presented on the third panel, “Effects of Press Coverage on Mass Shootings,” along with Ben Fernandez, chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.
A recording of Dr. Johnston’s presentation is available here.