Concern over ‘copycat’ shooters has some asking: Should media coverage change?

On Friday, Dylann Roof pleaded not guilty to 33 charges related to the killing of nine people in Charleston. A first-of-its-kind study offers statistical evidence suggesting public 'contagion' when it comes to mass shootings.

Randall Hill/REUTERS/File
Dylann Roof (r.), the 21-year-old man charged with murdering nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston last month, listens to the proceedings with assistant defense attorney William Maguire during a hearing at the Judicial Center in Charleston, South Carolina in this July 16, 2015 file photo.

Mass shootings – and the soul-searching, grieving, and justice-seeking that follow – supply a steady drumbeat of news these days. Dylann Roof was back in court Friday, pleading not guilty on federal hate crime charges related to the murder of nine parishioners at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. Many media outlets reported details Thursday from 911 calls and surveillance videos related to the recent Lafayette, La., theater shooting. And the sentencing procedures for James Holmes in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting have been moving forward this week.

With wall-to-wall coverage of these tragedies, especially in the immediate aftermath, concerns are growing that the media may too often play into killers’ desire for notoriety and encourage similar crimes.

Critics of how media outlets cover such events have been vocal about a need for change. And some point to guidelines for media coverage of suicide, which have been available for more than a decade to help journalists avoid contributing to a “contagion effect” that’s been documented by researchers.

Is it time for similar guidelines for reporting on mass shootings?

There’s not enough evidence to justify such calls, especially given the constitutional and practical issues involved, some observers say. But overall, this is a wide-open debate, especially since mass shootings are prompted by a complex web of factors that no one claims to fully understand.

“In the high-profile tragedies like mass killings and school shootings ... there was evidence of contagion,” says Sherry Towers, a research professor at Arizona State University in Tempe and the lead author of a new, first-of-its kind study that offers statistical models showing such contagion. “We believe the media may be playing a role, but this requires a lot of further study.”

The study found that the likelihood of similar events occurring was elevated for an average of 13 days, researchers reported this month in the journal PLOS One.

In the study, mass shootings involving three or fewer deaths did not correlate with a higher probability for more such crimes. But those involving more deaths did, as did the separate category of school shootings. The authors hypothesized that the national attention on larger mass killings and school shootings plays some role in prompting others – who are perhaps mentally ill or have access to weapons – to want to do something similar.

Professor Towers is among those who are not suggesting that the media should be restricted. She notes that many Canadians receive US news, and yet the rate of mass shootings in their nation is significantly lower.

However, various sociologists, victim advocates, and media figures have been arguing for a different media approach.

“Sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that contributes to these rampages,” wrote Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor who studies sociology and technology, in The Atlantic in 2012. 

Among her suggestions: Details of the methods and manner of the killings should not be immediately reported, including timelines and things the killer said before or during the shooting; social media accounts used by the killer should be pulled by the platforms; the killer should not be profiled; and his or her name should not be released right away.

Much of such information would get out on social media, Professor Tufekci acknowledged, but she noted, “there is a big difference between information that can only be found if you really look for it and news stories that are blasted by every television station and paper in the country.”

Because mass killers are often motivated by a desire to be well known, even sometimes competing for bigger body counts, similar recommendations have been put forward by Ari Schulman, senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. In addition to steps like those outlined by Tufekci, he suggested in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article that images of grieving families should not be run prominently because they can magnify the sense of horror that shooters are hoping for. 

Images of the event should also not be published, because they can go viral and become iconic, Mr. Schulman said. “If we can deprive [the killer] of the ability to make his internal psychodrama a shared public reality, if we can break this ritual of violence and our own ritual response, then we might just banish these dreadful and all too frequent acts to the realm of vile fantasy,” he wrote.

But there are practicalities to consider. “It doesn’t work when you tell journalists, don’t publish this information,” says Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The suicide reporting guidelines were produced through a long collaboration involving many organizations, and instead of giving a lot of “don’t” recommendations (which original drafts did, Ms. McBride says), they offered positive ways to give context to the issue.

Even without a large body of research demonstrating contagion of mass shootings, a discussion of best practices for the media is always a good idea, McBride says. Everything from conspiracy theories to “inaccurate master narratives” resulting from incorrect initial reporting can perhaps be mitigated by the media being more thoughtful, she says.

Publishers and editors need to be aware of the potential impact of a story, but for reporters on the ground, the most useful guidelines are simply common sense and integrity, says Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report and director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in New York. “People have to know what happened. That’s the essential role of a reporter,” he says, and guidelines often feel like “rules that have to be bent or forgotten about in the heat of the story.”

Last year, Schulman of The New Atlantis criticized The New York Times for publishing a 141-page manifesto and video statement by Elliot Rodger following his deadly spree in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area. The Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, then wrote a column about such debates, herself coming down more on the side of not “holding back germane information from the public.”

“When I started writing this column, I had the notion of leaving out Mr. Rodger’s name. But it proved impossible,” she noted. Yet she said that playing down a killer’s manifesto is worth considering, case by case. “We may have no choice but to name the killers, but we are not obligated to provide a platform for every one of their twisted views,” she wrote.

Schulman agreed in a recent interview with the Monitor’s Amanda Paulson that in some cases, there are non-sensationalistic ways to report on the political or ideological motivations of alleged killers, such as recent coverage of Mr. Roof’s ties to white supremacy. 

"If you stand back and treat [Roof’s writings] with awe, then you’re giving it more power than it should have," he said in the interview. "It should be regarded as a piece of propaganda."

The Roof case is also why Mr. Handelman of The Crime Report disagrees with the idea of not immediately publishing the names and backgrounds of suspected mass shooters. If people hadn’t reported on Roof wrapping himself in a Confederate flag, all the social impact that followed, including the removal of the flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol, may never have occurred, he says.

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