Are the Media Making Mass Shootings Worse?
Yes, according to a growing body of research, says criminologist Adam Lankford.
Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, Texas, announced in June that Robb Elementary School would be demolished. "You can never ask a child to go back or a teacher to go back in that school, ever," he said.
What happened in Uvalde was a gruesome tragedy that relates to some of America's worst pathologies: a fixation on violence, untreated mental illness, large swaths of alienated and angry young men, incompetent and unaccountable police.
These are all legitimate questions. But one question the media rarely ask is this: Is the press part of the problem? A growing body of research says yes.
"This is learned behavior and the media coverage is leading more people to learn it and to copy it," says University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford, who has studied mass killers for more than a decade. "The more victims they kill, the more fame and attention they get. They're being incentivized by the media coverage to be as destructive as possible."
"There seems to be too much demand for fame in America," Lankford writes in one paper, "and not enough supply."
One of Lankford's studies found that "winning a Super Bowl or Academy Award garnered less media attention than committing a high-profile mass killing." Perpetrators get pictured more on front pages than do their individual victims, and there's "a strong correlation between the number of victims harmed in these attacks and the amount of media attention that perpetrators receive."
"The media's rewarding [these high body counts]," says Lankford. "I think part of [the motive] is clickbait, essentially."
Some of Lankford's studies delve deep into the written or recorded statements that the murderers made about their motivations and attempt to measure to what degree fame seeking motivates spree killers. He points out that the duo who shot their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999 said they wanted to kill 250 people and discussed whether Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino would direct the movie about their crime. Many subsequent mass shooters have cited the Columbine murderers as inspiration.
Lankford's 2019 study found that at least 16 mass shooters since Columbine have voiced fame or notoriety as a motive and that the fame seekers average more than double the body counts, and many articulated a desire to surpass past records.
"They're using their victims as the means to an end," says Lankford. "And that end is fame."
It's not just Lankford saying this.
A 2017 FBI report says the "dominance of 24/7 media coverage…perpetuates [the mass shooting phenomenon] and allows it to grow and evolve" and suggests "news media should refrain from naming the assailants, from posting their photographs, videos and communications, and from publishing detailed investigations into their lives and motives." More than a hundred researchers have joined Lankford in signing an open letter, which asks major media to adopt new norms for covering mass killings, such as not naming them or publishing pictures of them.
"Nobody looks at the face of the most recent mass shooter and thinks, 'Oh, now that I see what he looks like, I know how to stop these, these attacks more effectively,'" says Lankford.
Lankford and his fellow signatories aren't calling for government intervention in terms of limiting the right of the media to publish certain information, but rather the adoption of the same sorts of ethical norms that encourage reputable outlets to withhold the names of rape victims.
"We're not saying the government should, um, formally restrict this information," says Lankford, who notes that such a policy would only increase distrust in government and the media. "I think [media outlets] just need to look a little more closely at the evidence and, and take a look in the mirror and say, 'Can I make this problem slightly less serious based on my own actions?'"
But could such a media blackout actually foster more misinformation by pushing information about the identities of shooters to the darkest corners of the internet, which aren't governed by such norms and where the valorization of mass killers already thrives? Or could it deprive the public of crucial information or hide patterns that could prove useful in predicting and stopping future killings?
Lankford says that while he wants media outlets to refrain from publicizing names and pictures of mass shooters, that information about "warning signs or backgrounds" is still useful and worthwhile information to publish and analyze. And he says he's "under no kind of delusion that this [identifying] information won't get out in some ways," but that large platforms refusing to publish names and pictures is still likely to help weaken the incentives for future fame-seeking spree killers.
"We're not going to cut out all coverage, but if we don't give these mass shooters Super Bowl–type like advertising…that in itself would, would make a difference," says Lankford.
Many large media outlets have made some adjustments to their coverage in recent years, such as devoting more attention to the victims rather than perpetrators of mass killings. But a search of most major news sites about recent mass shootings reveals that publishing pictures and detailed biographies of killers is still the norm.
"One of the things I've seen, which was a little disturbing, is some members of the media kind of patting themselves on the back as if, 'mission accomplished,'" says Lankford. "Doing something good on the one hand doesn't mean that the other things you're [still] doing that are dangerous are any less dangerous…Unfortunately, the pressure felt by members of the media because of the competition that they're involved in sometimes seems to be leading them to resist change, even if there's lots of evidence suggesting it would be the right thing to do."
Many of us know the names of the Columbine shooters and many other killers. How many victims' names do you remember? How about the name Elisjsha Dicken?
This picture (warning: gore) is what's left of a wannabe mass shooter after Dicken gunned him down in a shopping mall after he'd shot three people at the beginning of what he likely planned to be a prolonged shooting spree. "Many more people would have died" if Dicken hadn't intervened, said the local police chief.
If more angry young men saw those kinds of pictures of killers, instead of mug shots or old school photos, might they think twice before going on shooting sprees?
Demolishing the school building where the Uvalde tragedy occurred won't do anything to stop others like it from happening again. But burying the legacies of the men responsible for such atrocities just might help.
Produced and edited by Zach Weissmueller. Animations by Tomasz Kaye. Additional graphics by Nodehaus.