Does Media Coverage After a Mass Shooting Do More Harm Than Good?


Policemen stand outside of the Grand 16 movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, where 11 people were shot on July 23. (Photo: Corbis)

As of the Louisiana movie theater shooting that occurred last Thursday evening (July 23), there had been 204 mass shootings in the 204 days of 2015. Although the government has tighter qualifications, this statistic is defined by a shooting where four or more people are injured.

We almost expect these tragedies to be the leading stories on national newscasts each night. And if we’re not expecting them, we’re no longer surprised.

In 2014, the FBI released a report of “active shooter incidents” (many meeting criteria for mass shootings, others presumably attempted mass shootings) in the United States, showing that the number of these events is on the rise. In the period from 2007 to 2013, active shooter incidents had seemingly skyrocketed when compared to the period from 2000 to 2006. “The findings establish an increasing frequency of incidents annually,” the report states. “During the first 7 years included in the study, an average of 6.4 incidents occurred annually. In the last 7 years of the study, that average increased to 16.4 incidents annually.”

In the wake of the Louisiana shooting, much of the national conversation has centered on gun control — as was the case with Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado, and other major shootings in recent memory — since it appears the shooter used a gun purchased legally. But another, quieter whisper came from the families and others surrounding the case.

It’s one we’ve heard in the past, too, but one that often gets drowned out by other pressing matters: Don’t profile the shooter. Be vigilant about the information that is spread.

Would putting less emphasis on the perpetrator help prevent crime? It’s an ongoing debate.

Are we really seeing copycat crimes?

Although there is no evidence so far that the shooter on Friday was attempting to mimic the mass murder in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater three years ago, many are making parallels because both occurred in similar settings. But this probably wasn’t a true “copycat crime,” according to Chris Ferguson, an associate professor and the chairman of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, and an expert on media, violent crimes and forensic psychology.

“Generally, a copycat crime is typically used to delineate a crime that is specifically and primarily motivated to replicate a previous crime,” he tells Yahoo Health. “In this sense, copycat crimes are probably more myth than reality.”

There have probably been a few, though, says Ferguson. The Zodiac Shooter, who killed three people and wounded four between 1990 and 1993, was likely attempting to emulate the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But in most cases, crimes that appear similar to past incidents often have something to do with a pre-existing mental health condition possessed by the shooter.

“This means the individual is basically looking for something to emulate, and some form of crime would have happened anyway,” Ferguson says. “So what is a bit more common than copycat crimes are crimes where, once a person has decided to commit a crime, the criminal borrows something that they saw or read from another crime or media source.”

In a true copycat crime, the underlying motive for the violence is the same as the original perpetrator’s. A would-be criminal in some way relates to a past criminal, says psychologist Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct professor for the University of Illinois, Springfield. “These individuals join with each other, as they understand the plight behind why those that came before them actually committed their crimes,” she tells Yahoo Health. “They think they understand them.”

Related: Why Don’t We Study Gun Violence the Way We Study Car Accidents?

But today, we think of copycat crimes differently. Generally, crimes are not connected by perpetrators’ motivations, but by a similar manner in which they are committed. “Linking the Louisiana and Aurora shootings is a great example,” says Ferguson. “Criminals sometimes pick up stylistic elements of crimes — like how to pull it off — but not the motivation to commit one in the first place. Mass shootings tend to be premeditated, so it’s certainly possible that some criminals will ‘research’ options for committing crimes in advance.”

We don’t know yet whether the Louisiana theater shooter took hints from the Aurora shooter, who has been in the news over the past few weeks during his trial. But if he did, would less information about his crime filtering out to the public be better?

Is it better to make less information public?

The media is a hotbed of information, especially in the moments immediately following a crime. Getting the “scoop” and reporting on emerging action first is the main goal of every news outlet.

However, many first reports of mass shootings and other crimes are rife with speculation and misinformation. “It’s always important to remember that the initial details surrounding a crime, like the shooting in Louisiana, are often unreliable,” says Ferguson, noting it may take months to get the whole story. “The country wasted a year after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting debating the effect of violent video games, only to learn in the official investigation report 11 months later that [the shooter] mainly played the nonviolent game Dance Dance Revolution.”

Related: Study Finds 1 in 5 Americans Lives With a Mental Illness


Police tape surrounds the Grand 16 movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, where two people were killed. (Photo: Corbis)

In addition, using news platforms as megaphones for a crime’s tiniest details can mean wading into dangerous territory. “It can be a virtual roadmap of how to commit the crime,” says Ivankovich.

That said, reporting on such events isn’t likely to prevent the violent crime, says Ferguson, explaining that it’s not hard to amass damage in a theater, school, or other public venue. “Let’s imagine we could wave a magic wand and alter time so that the Aurora shooting never happened,” says Ferguson. “Would the perpetrator still have engaged in a mass shooting event? Most probably. It just might not have been in a theater.”

In the case for attempted mass homicide, where “getting away with it” is not the goal, which details trickle out to the public (and how many) may play less of a role. “You expect these individuals would perpetrate criminal acts regardless,” Ivankovich says. “At some point, their intention is simply supported by witnessing someone else, who inspires them to believe they were ‘ready.’”

Triggers exist all over, so it’s probably only a matter of time — in most cases with a similar profile. “The details emerging from the Louisiana case are pretty consistent with similar cases,” says Ferguson — “an angry, mentally ill person with a lot of grudges against society.”

Less press coverage would likely not have placated his violent motives, according to Ferguson. But when and what can the media streamline?

Can the media be more vigilant?

We live in a country where freedom of the press is paramount. We also live in a country where people want to protect their families, and make sure that everyone they love is safe after a criminal act. Being informed is a basic, critical right. Erasing all information about a mass shooting or major crime from the public isn’t going to benefit anyone.

However, being vigilant about the minutiae reported in a crime’s aftermath might have some impact on a case-by-case basis. “It’s not really possible to scrub society of this kind of information and still be ‘free,’” says Ferguson. “And I’m not sure how much difference it really makes for a mass shooting. But this type of phenomenon [where criminals take cues from past crimes], a kind of ‘CSI Effect,’ is probably more crucial to other cases, where perpetrators are trying to hide evidence.”

In these situations, where “pulling off” a crime might take some expertise, less might be more. “We have to create standards for what details are released, similar to how teen suicides are now reported,” says Ivankovich. “To avoid additional or copy suicides, the government implemented policies in the ’80s to regulate the media reports of teen suicides.” The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a set of best practices available to journalists, along with research that shows certain types of reports may prove harmful.

The media also has the power to focus on the cultural issues embodied by specific tragedies, which are worthy of discussion — and that is often why particular incidents reach a national news audience to start. “At the moment, we’re talking a lot about both gun control and mental illness, and recent crimes [like the Aurora and Louisiana shootings] obviously tap into both those issues,” Ferguson says.

And ultimately, in a culture “fascinated by the criminal mind,” we never want media to glorify a shooter — which may inspire others, says Ivankovich. “The media is encouraged to gather as much information as possible, but the more that is released, the greater likelihood of copies,” she says.


A woman remembers the victims of the shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana. (Photo: Corbis)

Ivankovich explains that reports should always air each bit of information carefully. “It’s not implausible to see an individual, who may already be contemplating criminal behavior, one who already feels anger or resentment over being ‘wronged,’ to latch on to specific details of another crime,” she says. “In turn, they can perpetrate a crime, feel as if they are righting a wrong, be sensationalized by the media — and ultimately given their 15 minutes of fame.”

News media in some countries take steps, such as withholding a perpetrator’s name, to avoid turning a criminal into a celebrity, says Ferguson. “This is to give a shooter’s name less ‘star power’” he says, suggesting that not every shooter’s motive is fame, though “some shooters do seem interested in making a name for themselves.” It’s probably impossible to know for sure which ones.

Brad J. Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology, and the chairman of mass communication at Ohio State University, points to an interview conducted in the wake of Sandy Hook.

“As Steven Pinker noted, ‘If you decide your life is worth nothing, you’re a nobody, you haven’t made a difference, and you want to do something that guarantees that your name will be on the lips of everyone in the country, what are your options? There’s only one, and that is kill a lot of innocent people,’” he tells Yahoo Health. “I think any media attention given to the shooter makes matters worse rather than better.”

Two people died in a Louisiana theater last week: Jillian Johnson and Mayci Breaux. Those are the names worth remembering.

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