Reporters shouldn’t profile mass shooters, say experts

A portion of the crowd at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24. Image via Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

On Monday, the day after a professional video gamer shot 13 people at a Madden football tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, The Washington Post published a profile of the gunman.

The piece, which included a photo of him and video footage of him playing Madden NFL and giving interviews, recounted his triumph at a 2017 tournament and his burgeoning status in the esports world. The Jacksonville shooting, in which he killed two people and then himself, was first mentioned in the tenth paragraph.

“The article reads like a glorified celebrity profile,” says Nicole Dahmen, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon who’s studied coverage of mass shootings. “Why does it give us eight paragraphs of what a celebrity, high-profile gamer he is?”

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The Post declined to make a reporter or editor available for comment. Molly Gannon Conway, a communications manager with the Post, emailed the following statement: “As is true in all cases, reporting on the alleged killer is only one aspect of our coverage. In this instance, the story helps readers better understand the esports community affected and the accused killer’s history within that community. These are not easy decisions to make and for each individual story, we must consider what is newsworthy.”

For academics that study the contagion effect, which has been cited in numerous studies of mass shootings, the Post article was a bat signal.  A growing body of contagion effect research suggests such coverage can be perilous for the public, so much so that publishing profiles of shooting suspects and perpetrators should be considered a dangerous proposition. Any coverage of mass shootings, some researchers argue, contributes to the contagion effect, while profiles carry an extra risk of incentivizing fame-seeking shooters. These researchers, and their allies in activist groups like “No Notoriety,” would like to see news outlets avoid using the names and photos of mass shooters.

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Contagion theory says that mass shootings breed more mass shootings. The exact mechanism isn’t always clear, but what seems to be happening is this: The more mass shootings there are, and the more attention they get, the more troubled people think that shooting a great number of random people is a normal thing that a troubled person does.

A 2015 study by a group of Arizona State University researchers found that, after a public mass killing involving firearms, the probability of another such attack increased for the next 13 days. Each mass shooting was determined to incite at least 0.3 new shootings. Mass media coverage was found to be a significant driver of the contagion effect, though its effect was determined to be smaller than that of social media.

The research hasn’t addressed whether a profile like the Post’s contributes more to social contagion than a straight news story. Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama who studies mass shootings, mentioned the Post article as problematic before CJR asked him about it. Most of the immediate coverage of the Jacksonville shooting was “relatively restrained,” he says, but the Post profile and its placement on the paper’s home page, with a photo of the shooter, amounted to “dangerous amounts of attention.”

“It sends a message to other at-risk individuals that they can become famous by committing mass shootings,” Lankford says.

A number of mass shooters, including the gunman at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the one at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in 2015, said in messages they left before their attacks that they sought fame and widespread news coverage. The contagion effect, according to Lankford, is strongest among such shooters, who are also often the most dangerous. “There is a statistical relationship,” says Lankford, “between fame seeking and the number of victims killed.”

Lankford and a criminal justice professor at the University of Washington, Eric Madfis, published an article last year in the journal American Behavioral Scientist called “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, But Report Everything Else.” The article sets out a framework that news organizations could follow when covering mass shootings. The biggest change from current practice? The names and photos of mass shooters would never be used, except when police are looking for an at-large suspect.

We have hundreds of stories of these young men. There is nothing new to report. There are no new amazing secrets.

Their prescription is similar to that of No Notoriety, a group founded by the parents of a victim of the 2012 massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. No Notoriety wants media outlets to use a shooter’s name no more than once per article and never in headlines, and to refuse to publish or broadcast a killer’s statements, videos, or manifesto.

There’s no guarantee that either approach would change the contagion effect. Detailed information about mass shooters would still be available on Twitter, Reddit, Wikipedia, and other, darker corners of the Internet. Tabloid outlets like TMZ might still publish names, faces and manifestos. Still, Lankford, Madis, and other researchers theorize that a new set of best practices in mainstream news media would limit contagion by taking the names and faces of mass shooters out of the center of the national conversation.

Both Lankford and Madfis say that while they would like to see no mention of shooters by name, they recognize that sometimes a shooter’s identity is important. In breaking news coverage, correctly identifying the suspect can stop the public from pinning the crime on the wrong person. A shooter who survives and goes to trial, like the gunman in Parkland, might also be named in trial coverage in a responsible way. In other stories, a news outlet could leave out the name and link to a page with the shooter’s name and other details of the incident, Lankford says.

“We can think of this as binary—either publish the names or don’t—but another way of thinking about it is, how often do members of the public need to see the names and photos?” Lankford says.

“I’m not opposed to having detailed, in-depth coverage of the person’s life,” Madfis says. “But it has to be a critical investigation of their life, and not just a platform for them.”

Other researchers in the field are more adamant. Jennifer Johnston, a psychology professor at Western New Mexico University, says she sees no reason a news organization should ever use a mass killer’s name or photo. Writing about mass shooters in a recent paper, Johnston argued that “identification with prior mass shooters made famous by extensive media coverage…is a more powerful push toward violence than mental health status or even access to guns.”

Given the size of the contagion effect in the Arizona State study, Johnston thinks an end to national media coverage of mass shootings would result in a one-third reduction in shootings, saving hundreds of lives per year. Such a reduction would require a total blackout on names, faces, and life stories of the killers, as well as a move away from covering every mass shooting as a national story.

“We have hundreds of stories of these young men,” Johnston says. “There is nothing new to report. There are no new amazing secrets. It’s a copycat kind of choice they make, to escape from one’s pain and to exact revenge on those who wronged them.… I know that journalists want to report the who, what, when, where and why, but I just don’t think it matters who did it, except in a court of law.”

That is, of course, anathema to many journalists, whose careers are often based on the idea that individual stories matter and anecdotes can be revelatory.

“As journalists, we’re in the business of collecting information and publishing information,” says Scott Kraft, the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Knowing who the perpetrators of these mass shootings are, what motivated them, those things are important for the public to know.”

Stories about mass shooters can hold public officials accountable, Kraft says. What if a shooter had a history of threats and unstable behavior that were ignored by police or school officials? What if a shooter bought a gun that he shouldn’t have been allowed to buy? Without the general public knowing who the shooter was, such details might never come to light.

The killing of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was, and still is, “the story of the century,” says Julie Anderson, editor in chief of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. It’s been a crime story, a political story about gun control and student activism, a court story, and a story about the institutional failings that let the confessed shooter slip through the cracks of the school and mental health systems.

“What we’re trying to do now is really understand what happened, what led up to it, and what could have made a difference, so we can help communities make choices about what can we do differently to minimize the risk of it happening again,” Anderson says. “We’re trying to point out the systemic problems, so you have to get into details about the shooter. It reveals a lot of bureaucratic missteps or just incompetence.”

Before the massacre at Stoneman Douglas, Anderson had never heard of the contagion effect or considered whether there was an ethical issue in publishing the name and photo of a school shooter. In the first few weeks after the shooting, she started to hear the Parkland students who have become gun control activists say they wished the Sun Sentinel would leave the shooter’s name and photo out of its coverage.

It didn’t hit home for Anderson until six weeks after the shooting, when the Sun Sentinel reported the confessed killer was getting stacks of letters in jail, including love letters from teenage girls.

“The jail had never seen anything like it. It was bags and bags of fan mail,” Anderson says. “I thought, ‘That’s weird. Maybe this does have something to do with all the coverage.’”

Since then, Anderson says, the Sun Sentinel has been more careful about when and how it uses the name and image of the shooter.

It’s a small change at one newspaper, but it might be a sign of something bigger. The experts and working journalists interviewed for this article say they’re sensing a shift in conventional wisdom. Even if newsrooms aren’t changing their practices, journalists are talking about the idea of mass shootings as a social contagion, and thinking about whether their coverage acts as a vector.

The “who” in a major news story isn’t going anywhere without a wholesale rethinking of what journalism is and does. What seems more likely is that a new set of best practices will emerge—much as they have for covering suicide, mental illness and sexual assault. It’s likely to focus on areas of broad agreement: don’t publish a killer’s manifesto; don’t keep score of the deadliest mass shootings of all time; avoid photos of the killer; avoid repeating the killer’s name in contexts where it’s irrelevant, like profiles of victims and survivors.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that change is going to happen overnight, but I think we will see some changes,” says Dahmen, the University of Oregon journalism professor. “Journalism has a moral responsibility to seek truth, but also to minimize harm. No well-intentioned journalist wants to create harm. They want to inform audiences, and they’re just doing it the way they’ve always done it.”

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.