Representation Of School Shootings In The Media

Contrary to popular opinion, the school shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, was not the first of its kind in the United States. Over 33 years earlier, the University of Texas at Austin experienced a mass shooting in which the perpetrator killed 14 people and injured 31. While several schools had experienced a mass shooting before the University of Texas at Austin, this event marked a turning point in the role of the media in disseminating the information to the world and considering the consequences of their coverage regarding potential copycat killers and portrayal of the victims as well as the perpetrators. In this essay, a school shooting will be defined as a shooting that occurs on an educational campus with a focus on the United States and will exclude suicides or mishandling of firearms.

According to an article by Kasey Cordell, the coverage of a school shooting can be summarized as follows: first reporters on scene provide hasty, inaccurate information, the next wave of reporters will begin interviews of victims and provide accurate details on the perpetrator and the casualty and injury numbers. This continues until policy leaders address the situation, and then the school shooting will be swept under the rug, rarely mentioned in the media, except as a reference, especially in the case of Columbine. What sets Columbine apart from these other school shootings was not the casualty count, not the injuries, nor the killers themselves, but the quick pace in which journalists were giving out facts that had no credibility to them and the television broadcasts that occurred within minutes of the shooting.

Dave Cullen, a journalist, wrote Columbine, which detailed the events surrounding the school shooting, and reported that only one newspaper The Rocky Mountain News provided consistent, accurate information. Journalists are primarily getting their information from interviews with victims, family members, and school officials, thus the information reported will have already gone through the cycle of societal expectations in which the perpetrator becomes a social outcast or mentally ill, even though that might not be the case.

Race and gender, mentally ill or of a healthy mind, all characteristics are factors in how a journalist will portray the offender. In the case of race, a study found that those of a White or Latino ethnicity were more likely to be portrayed as mentally ill, but only Whites were portrayed in a way to make the viewer sympathetic to them. In a separate study, researchers discovered that several articles began to even diagnose the shooters based upon the little information that had been given, saying they had schizophrenia or depression. These diagnoses could be true, but without evidence, no proper conclusions can be made.

Recently, a shift has started, likely due in response to calls of victims and their families of school shootings, to increase gun control, and journalists have begun to blame school shootings on this lack of movement towards control. Fortunately, researchers discovered that “One hour of gun-related news coverage following a mass shooting is associated with a 13 percent increase in the number of gun-related bills introduced in state legislatures”.

What has primarily been researched in the relations between journalists, the media, and mass shootings is the Contagion Effect. This is what occurs when a shooter is inspired by another shooting, usually known as a copycat killing. In many cases, the mere mention of a name will drive a person to reach that same infamy through the same actions. A study showed that, “At its mean, ABC news coverage is suggested to cause approximately three mass shootings in the subsequent week, equivalent to 58 percent of all mass shootings in the United States”. Columbine is one of the primary sources of the Contagion Effect, as seen in the attached infographic. The school shooting has been traced to over 40 others be it directly or indirectly. 

Although numerous studies have been completed by social scientists, and data shows how the information provided can incite future shootings, the media continues to focus on the perpetrators as their violent acts gain more profits by viewers. The No Notoriety Campaign was created by Steve and Caren Teves, their son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, and calls for the media to refrain from using names and pictures of these mass killers beyond what is necessary and to instead call for a remembrance of the victims. The FBI has created a “Don’t Name Them” campaign with a similar goal and to reduce the potential for a copycat killing.

Journalists are the number one source for information for people across the country, whether it be through a newspaper or a news anchor, they provide the data and profiles. Often enough the journalists will receive biased or incorrect information and unfortunately, pass that on to be broadcast. Research is showing that the portrayal of the perpetrator is often biased, especially those of color, and that mental illness is often cited as a reason for the shooting without evidence. Furthermore, campaigns are ongoing to decrease the Contagion Effect of the media upon mass shootings. 

16 August 2021
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