Does Media Coverage Contribute to Gun Violence?

June 9, 2018

On Wednesday, May 31, prosecutors released three short videos recorded by Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz in which he planned his shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he later killed 17 people. In the videos, he boasts that his actions will make him the “next school shooter of 2018.”


In light of these videos, hearing Cruz anticipate his fame, it might seem that the media is partly to blame for the rise in gun violence in the United States. Many shooters like Cruz know that their actions will bring them infamy, and the desire for fame is a strong motivator. However, it is the responsibility of news outlets to provide their audience with information on what is happening in the world, especially when it comes to the endangerment of human lives and civil society.This dilemma thus arises: how should we deal with the potential correlation between news coverage and the rise in mass shootings?


Photo: ABC News


Recent studies have suggested a link between mass media coverage of shooters and a rise in mass shootings. Researchers call it a “contagion” effect, meaning that seeing previous shooters covered extensively on the news provides incentive to potential new mass shooters, leading to more gun violence in a short period of time as “copycats” emerge. Researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy wrote in a paper on this contagion that they believe the effect is unintentional on the part of the news media, but that nevertheless, the in-depth coverage of mass shooters is contributing to the rise in gun violence.


Following the Parkland shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA) released a video claiming that the mainstream media is responsible for gun violence in America, because they “love mass shootings.” Colin Noir, the narrator of the video, says that “the mainstream media just put out the casting call for the next mass shooter” by covering the Parkland shooting in such depth. He argues that the media tends to blame the NRA for shootings, when in fact the fault lies with the news coverage itself. However, both sides of the argument lack the proper research to substantially support their position.


A federal ban currently prohibits in-depth studies into gun violence in the United States, meaning that the Centers for Disease Control is not allowed to study the effects and causes of gun violence. While most researchers agree that the abundance of firearms in the US has a direct correlation with gun violence in our country, no research has been conducted on a federal level to look into the best solutions and preventative measures to counter gun violence.


Dr. Johnston and Mr. Joy propose one such solution in their paper: a new way to cover mass shootings, which they call the Don’t Name Them campaign. In this approach, the media would offer the facts of the shooting and cover the victims’ and community’s reaction, but refrain from giving the shooter the spotlight. Today’s media coverage often goes into extensive detail on the life and motivations of the shooter, when instead, these researchers argue, the coverage should focus on the event and the victims.


On the positive side, media coverage of mass shootings can also be used to bring about change in issues like gun control. The Parkland shooting was an outlier in the amount of media coverage it received; the news coverage of Parkland lasted much longer than previous mass shootings. In the two weeks following the Parkland massacre, coverage of the event and its aftermath on major news outlets remained steady, consistently taking up the same amount of air time throughout that 14-day period. By contrast, after other mass shootings like the incident in Las Vegas in 2017, the news coverage declined rapidly by the two-week mark.


The Parkland victims are using news media as a platform to promote and spread their message to fight for stricter gun control laws, which has given them more coverage, even after the typical two-week period. Without the extensive coverage of major news networks, their #NeverAgain movement would not have gained so much nationwide attention so quickly. In the wake of this movement, stricter gun control legislation has already been implemented in some states and even specific school districts.


Florida Governor Rick Scott has signed legislation that bans bump stocks and provides other reforms for gun safety and mental health. In Oregon, people convicted of domestic violence can no longer legally own a firearm. So while organizations like the NRA may argue that media coverage seems to glorify violence, the news also brings national attention to gun reform and gun safety.


It’s easy to point fingers and say that one organization or group is the reason for such tragedies, and it’s true that the media is not entirely without blame for the rise in mass shootings. But due to the lack of federally-sanctioned research, we can’t be sure of the extent to which news media affects gun violence. According to Dr. Johnston and Mr. Joy, if news outlets can avoid in-depth profiles of shooters, we will minimize the contagion effect of gun violence in the US. But until we have more information, the blame for America’s gun problem cannot be entirely assigned to any single institution—including the media.


Abigail is a rising sophomore at Emerson College studying for a BFA in creative writing. She spends most of her free time during the year working for her school newspaper, but also enjoys going to poetry readings, spending time with friends, and cheering for her hometown Philadelphia sports teams.

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