John Locher / AP

Lack of data blocks understanding of link between media and mass shootings

Researchers say Congress has blocked funding for research on gun violence, including effects of mass media coverage

Sensationalized and detailed media coverage of mass shootings may be contributing to copycat crimes, psychologists and other experts said this week, adding that more would be known about the possible correlation if full federal funding for research on gun violence were restored.

“I do not believe that anyone who is normal, happy and well adjusted commits a mass murder because they saw news about it,” said Park Dietz, a psychologist and founder of the Threat Assessment Group, which works with corporations, educational institutions and government agencies to prevent and manage violence.

But he added that in any news audience there are inevitably a number of at-risk people, including some who are suicidal, angry, paranoid and armed.

“The more we provoke that segment of the audience in ways that predictably move them to action, the more we continue this lineage of mass murder,” said Dietz, who has been outspoken on the links between in-depth media coverage of mass shootings and copycat crimes since 1993.

Last Thursday a gunman at Umpqua Community College in the southwestern Oregon town of Roseburg killed nine people and wounded 20 others. In the aftermath, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said he would not name the shooter because he did not want to inspire other killers motivated by a desire for infamy.

Many major U.S. cable news networks aired stories about his refusal to name the gunman, explaining his reasoning and then promptly naming the shooter, Dietz said.

While research into gun violence and this topic in particular has been stunted by Congress’ blocking of federal funding for such research, one research team found that mass killings that received national media attention appeared to be contagious.

Sherry Towers, a professor of mathematics and computational modeling at Arizona State University, led a study, released in July, that looked at two sets of data: mass killings of at least four people that received national media attention and shootings in which fewer than four were killed but at least three people were shot that were covered in local news.

“What we looked for in the data sets were evidence of unusual bunching in time — the hallmark of contagions,” she said. A pattern of many events bunched in time is an indicator that the events did not occur randomly and might be grouped as a contagion, she explained.

“We found significant evidence that they were being bunched in time. With events that didn’t get a lot of media attention, there was no evidence of being bunched in time,” Towers said.

Her team found that mass killings create a period of contagion lasting about 13 days, and about 20 to 30 percent of those tragedies likely arose from contagion.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, by criminologists and behavior scientists, but what’s really getting in the way of actually making progress on understanding these dynamics is the ban on federal funding,” Towers said.

Federal funding to examine gun violence has been largely blocked by Congress since 1996 after pressure from the National Rifle Association. 

Because of the lack of data on this topic, other experts cautioned that the link between media coverage of mass shootings and copycat crimes was not so clear.

“It’s important to point out it’s a really tricky issue and we don’t have a lot of data to tell us to what extent do news media actually contribute to these types of shootings,” said Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida.

However, some of the shooters have referred to past incidents, such as at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School in Colorado. In a few cases, gunmen praised those individuals, emulated them and even tried to rack up higher body counts, he said.

“For some of these people, there’s the concern that providing that incentive — making it so you can become famous through committing a mass shooting — may provide one more incentive for some individuals who may already be considering this,” Ferguson said.

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