Here we go again. A gunman fires on an unsuspecting crowd and the American media leap to conclusions about the shooter’s state of mind.
The most reckless example of this, following the early Friday morning killing spree in an Aurora, CO, movie theater, which left as many as 14 dead and dozens more wounded, was a deplorable article from ABC News.
No sooner had police arrested 24-year-old James Holmes, whom witnesses said walked into a screening of the latest Batman film and started shooting, than the network began to speculate about mental health.
“Psychology experts say it’s hard to know what Holmes’s state of mind was before his alleged rampage, but emerging details suggest he was a deeply disturbed individual,” its article read.
ABC News reported that it spoke with “several psychologists” to come to this nuanced conclusion, and while it acknowledged that none of them had “direct knowledge of Holmes,” it proceeded to draw wild conclusions from their comments.
Take this gem, in which the network slyly turns statements about the general characteristics of madmen into a specific diagnosis:
Psychologists said shooters who go on rampages, targeting random people with no apparent motive, may or may not have a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia. Rather, Holmes was likely living in a world of an alternate reality, suffering from delusions of threats and making plans to make right things that he perceived were wrong.
As I wrote last year, whether it’s the gunman opening fire on a crowd, a dictator brutally killing his own people, or simply a celebrity having a temper tantrum, the news media have a penchant for “covering crazy.” And in their rush to psychoanalyze, they often compel psychologists to violate the “Goldwater rule,” an ethical standard adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, which warns [PDF; see section 7.3] that:
On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.
ABC News wasn’t the only outlet that violated the rule following the tragedy on Friday.
“At this early date, what we don’t know far outweighs what we do. But based on the information currently available, it is reasonable to speculate that James Holmes may turn out to be the latest in a far-too long list of spree killers, who suddenly strike for the express purpose of racking up a high death toll,” wrote National Post’s Matt Gurney.
In fact, it’s not reasonable at all. There is simply no way to know what Holmes’s“express purpose” may have been, and guessing doesn’t help anyone.
On The Washington Post’s live blog coverage of the theater shooting, reporter Joel Achenbach was more careful. Presenting comments from Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist with experience in mass-shooting cases, and stressing that those comments were general in nature, Achenbach quoted material reflecting that. According to Welner:
Mass shooting cases have the common motive of an attacker seeking immortality. Each of the attackers have different degrees of paranoia and resentment of the broader community. Some are so paranoid that they’re psychotic. Others are paranoid in a generally resentful way but have no significant psychiatric illness. But you have to hate everyone in order to kill anyone. The threshold that the mass shooter crosses is one in which he decides that his righteous indignation and entitlement to destroy is more important than the life of any random person that he might kill.
But even these generalizations risk stereotyping, and they encourage readers to stereotype as well. Was Holmes really thinking about immortality? Again, there’s no way to know.
Consult half a dozen different outlets and you’ll find half a dozen descriptions of the way mass murders “are.” It’s a cheap way to boost traffic and journalists should learn to restrain themselves until more information becomes available. The best profile of Holmes so far comes from The Denver Post, which did some actual reporting in order to gather a few actual facts about him, drawing on a self-description he wrote last year in an apartment application and interviews with his neighbors. It may not be as exciting as armchair psychiatry, but it’s far more reliable, and therefore far more revealing.