Does The Media Provide Too Much Information On Mass Shooters? The following article has been written by Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. It includes editorial content which is the opinion and story of the writer.
Is the media giving the public too much information on mass shooters?
There’s a case to be made that they are and that’s propagating more mass shootings.
It’s time to stop.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.
Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of directing award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of Criminology and Public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Former police officer. Aspiring drummer.
Author of ”Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization” available at Amazon and additional booksellers.
I just wrote Sending The Wrong Messages to Criminals: “They Know They’re Untouchable.”
The premise is that offenders understand that the rules governing them have softened considerably in recent years. We are telling criminal offenders that the justice system is backing down and that their chances for apprehension and accountability are greatly diminished. Urban violence is skyrocketing.
Throughout the article, I suggested that messages have consequences.
What messages are we giving to mass shooters? We seem to promise potential shooters an immense amount of notoriety that has the potential to last for decades. Is the promise of lasting “fame” an inducement to those contemplating a mass shooting?
If you read the research and data on mass shooters, some experts express concern that for many mass “public” shootings (the shooting of strangers) the assailants are looking for fame and notoriety which we give them in mass dosages through media coverage. It probably applies to some “private” mass shooters (shootings of those the assailant knows).
The Commonalities Of Public Mass Shooters
What do mass shooters have in common? Beyond the fact that they are overwhelmingly male, there seem to be endless variations. Domestic violence, warning others of an impending shooting, psychological problems, hatred of women, criminal history, substance abuse, interest in violent topics, and many other variables apply.
The most important commonalities? 62 percent planned their attacks. Half had grievances against specific people. Nearly all had stressful events in their lives.
Many of these variables apply in smaller percentages than you would expect. It’s common that 30 to 40 percent (or less) have one or several of these issues.
The second problem is that the literature on descriptions of mass shooters seems to apply to most (if not all) street criminals. How can you tell the difference?
But what do all “public” mass shooters seem to have in common? A desire for massive amounts of publicity or validation that their lives have “value.” They go from a toxic mix of obscurity and hatred to being a household name. If you hate Catholics and shoot up a church, is the rational religion or a terribly misguided perception of fame? If there is no national recognition of your name and manifesto, why do it?
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Mass Shooters-We Hold Nothing Back
We cite their names and criminal histories. We publish their social media platforms and manifestos. We interview their friends and family. We show current photos and those of their childhoods. Multiple people will cite unresolved psychological problems. Law enforcement will create profiles of their lives and criminality. We end up knowing more about a mass shooter than we do about a member of the Supreme Court or Congress.
What would happen if the media or government decided not to publish any information on a mass shooter? Answer: I’m guessing that it would rob many (if not most) shooters of the fame and notoriety they seek. If there’s no psychological payoff for committing a mass shooting, is there a possibility that it wouldn’t happen at all?
I understand that mass shooters are complex people with multiple reasons for their crimes. There are work-related mass shootings where offenders carry a real or imagined grudge. It’s the same for school shooters. “Public” mass shootings (involving strangers) are different from “private” mass shootings targeting people they know as part of a criminal enterprise or a perception of disrespect.
“Public” mass shooters expect to be killed at the scene or they take their own life.
“Private” mass shooters try their best to conceal their identity and escape.
For “public” mass shooters murdering strangers, they want fame related to the event. They expect to die. If you deny them that fame, is there potential for them to seek other venues for their frustrations and psychological problems? Can you stop a significant number of mass shootings by not giving information about the shooter to the public?
Why Do Mass Shooters Use Assault Style Weapons?
The more heinous the shooting, the more publicity you get.
The modus operandi (MO) of “public” mass shooters looking to maximize their “fame” almost requires an assault weapon (multiple weapons are normal) and camouflage clothing plus a bulletproof vest. Their motive is to scare the public to the core and it works. If the perception is that you are not safe anywhere, his impact on the lives of average Americans is greatly enhanced. If he shoots up a school or church or synagogue or mosque or place with vulnerable people, his fame skyrockets. Nursing homes or daycare centers may be next. It’s all calculated.
We have to understand the probable motive of mass shooters and how they manipulate society through their weapons and dress and the victims they choose. They can accomplish the same carnage with a hunting rifle with multiple magazines and semi-automatic pistols. They can accomplish the same objectives with a shotgun.
But an assault-style weapon guarantees the publicity they seek.
What Can We Give To The Media And Public?
Very little. Not his name. Not his photo. Not the address of his website or social media account.
After 35 years of media relations for national and state justice agencies, I understand that the media will raise an immense amount of stink demanding that they have a right to this information. They do not “if” it’s going to create more rationals for others doing the same thing.
It’s going to take national, state, and regional agreements between law enforcement and the media to agree that the names and personal information of mass shooters are not in the public’s best interest.
What can be provided? That the shooter was a 35-year-old white male with an extensive criminal history with a background of making disparaging remarks about the group targeted. It’s inevitable that a bit more will be released as the investigation proceeds.
Can we really keep the name a secret? From my decades in media relations, I understand that someone within the justice system will know the shooter’s name and may pass it on to a friend in the media. We have to train our own employees that naming him will create more carnage.
It will take a firm commitment by the media not to release this information. It will have to be an effort on the part of the FBI or Homeland Security or the President to meet with national media and ask them not to give shooters the publicity they seek. Then that agreement needs to be conveyed to all state media.
In the final analysis, it must be a voluntary agreement on the part of all media not to publish his name or personal information.
The media should stick to the established data on all mass shooters. That data should be updated monthly.
Can One Mass Shooting Inspire Another?
Yes. The police find abundant evidence that shooters have studied previous crimes, often mimicking gestures or killing tactics, as if in homage to previous killers. This is true both of younger shooters who mow down unarmed people in schools, or at random; and of older men who execute innocents in the name of an ideology — be it opposition to immigration, white supremacy, radical Islam or another extreme belief.
The young man who slaughtered elementary school children and teachers in Sandy Hook, Conn., had studied the Columbine massacre, among many others. The man who shot to death 50 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., had studied a previous attack, in San Bernardino, Calif. In both cases, the murderers cited radical Islam as justification, New York Times.
Is Media Coming To The Same Conclusions?
Media is starting to understand that it’s not in the public’s best interest to release the names and backgrounds of mass shooters.
Within the last three years, many American newsrooms, including NPR’s, have reduced both the frequency and prominence with which they name suspects in mass shootings.
But the editorial judgments have been somewhat inconsistent — case-by-case decisions on balancing the obligations to report the news with growing audience demands to be sensitive to families and not glorify the assailants. Now it’s time to take the next step. Newsrooms, including NPR’s, need to develop standards that guide journalists and help the audience understand when it is appropriate to name the shooter, and when to avoid it.
Ethics policies produce better journalism when they affirmatively guide journalists on what to do, rather than delineate prohibitions on what they shouldn’t.
NPR’s current practice on covering mass shootings can be summed up in this statement: Use the name of the killer sparingly and focus on the victims. In a series of memos, this policy has evolved over the years, starting with a suggestion to “minimize the name of the shooter when possible,” National Public Radio
Perpetrators Tend To Be Radicalized By Studying Other Shooters
Perpetrators tend to be radicalized by studying other shooters before them. Many of them spend time on the internet in kind of these dark chat rooms where violence is really celebrated and validated. And then they go into this act knowing it’s their final act.
So, they’re kind of actively suicidal, planning to die in the act. They have access to the firearms that they need. And many of them leak their plans. Many of them tell other people they’re thinking about violence before they do it. And then they go out and they choose a location that’s symbolic of their grievance with the world because they’re looking for this fame and notoriety in their death that they didn’t have in their life.
There’s this wonderful organization called No Notoriety, which was founded by Tom and Caren Teves, who lost their son. He was killed in the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. And they were really appalled with the level of coverage that that perpetrator received in the media. His face was everywhere, all over cable news, on the front of newspapers and magazines, where their son just kind of faded away and didn’t get that same type of attention. And we do know that perpetrators are looking for that attention. We call these a type of performance crimes because they are meant to be watched and witnessed. They’re meant to create fear. They’re meant to have their manifesto go viral. They’re meant to have their name make the history books alongside all these other names (emphasis added). And so there’s this piece of this that when we watch and when we consume it, we’re kind of giving them the attention that they’re looking for. And then also inspiring the next person looking for that same level of attention.
So, the No Notoriety Protocol is focused—it’s similar to actually the way that media covers suicides, because we know celebrity suicides. There’s a contagion aspect to that. And so now journalists are trained in how to cover suicides in a way to not give details about how the suicide was committed, to kind of minimize coverage so as not to amplify that contagion. It’s similar for mass shootings. We can talk about the mass shooting. We can talk about the victims, the first responders, but not to give the perpetrator that level of attention that they’re looking for, American Psychological Association.
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Recently a “contagion” effect has been suggested wherein the occurrence of one mass shooting increases the likelihood of another mass shooting occurring in the near future. Although contagion is a convenient metaphor used to describe the temporal spread of a behavior, it does not explain how the behavior spreads.
Here we provide an overview of generalized imitation and discuss how the way in which the media report a mass shooting can increase the likelihood of another shooting event. Also, we propose media reporting guidelines to minimize imitation and further decrease the likelihood of a mass shooting.
Recently a contagion effect, similar to a “copycat” effect, has been suggested in mass shootings. This effect suggests that behaviors can be “contagious” and spread across a population. There is now evidence that when a mass shooting occurs, there is a temporary increase in the probability of another event within the next 13 days on average.
Importantly, the way that the media report an event can play a role in increasing the probability of imitation. When a mass shooting event occurs, there is generally extensive media coverage. This coverage often repeatedly presents the shooter’s image, manifesto, and life story and the details of the event, and doing so can directly influence imitation.
Social status is conferred when the mass shooter obtains a significant level of notoriety from news reports. Images displaying shooters aiming guns at the camera project an air of danger and toughness. Similarities between the shooter and others are brought to the surface through detailed accounts of the life of the shooter, with which others may identify. Fulfilled manifestos and repeated reports of body counts heap rewards on the violent act and display competence. Detailed play-by-play accounts of the event provide feedback on the performance of the shooter. All of these instances serve to create a model with sufficient detail to promote imitated mass shootings for some individuals.
The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training team, in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has developed the “Don’t Name Them” campaign.
The campaign aims to curb media-induced imitational mass shootings and suggests minimizing naming and describing the individuals involved in mass shootings, limiting sensationalism, and refusing to broadcast shooter statements or videos. Adopting the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training team could help decrease the number of mass shootings in the United States, National Institute Of Health.
Based on research, it’s my conclusion that the media plays an important role in propagating or stopping many public mass shootings. However, it’s difficult to get them to stop releasing personal information on a mass shooter because that’s what their audience wants.
Is there data supporting a different point of view as to “public” mass shootings? There is: “The findings suggest that mass public shootings have a strong effect on the level of news reporting, but that news reporting on the topic has little impact, at least in the relative short-term, on the subsequent prevalence of mass shootings,” The Contagion of Mass Shootings.
This is in contrast to the National Institute of Health (above) stating: “There is now evidence that when a mass shooting occurs, there is a temporary increase in the probability of another event within the next 13 days on average.” The Contagion of Mass Shootings looked at short-term effects while we know that many mass shooters research previous incidents and it may take time for them to act.
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The immensity and complexity of the issue is considerable. Mass shootings are either at 200 or 22 for this year per media sources. There are many kinds of mass shooters and motivations. “Private” mass shootings targeting people the assailant knows through criminal enterprises may not be necessarily affected by publicity.
But considering the totality of data, there seems to be a consensus that “public” mass shooters are greatly influenced by the publicity they seek. Many criminal offenders have extensive histories of mental health and substance abuse problems. Many are angered by years of child abuse and neglect. Many feel abandoned by their friends, families, and relatives. As one parole and probation agent once said, “They have chips on their shoulders the size of Montana.” Many offenders see violence as a good thing that protects themselves, their loved ones, and their property. They don’t expect to live past the age of 25.
If true, why not go out in a blaze of “glory?”
Their manifesto may cite grievances against a group to appease their followers, but according to the American Psychological Association (above), “We call these a type of performance crimes because they are meant to be watched and witnessed. They’re meant to create fear. They’re meant to have their name make the history books…”
We are awash with criminal offenders who go through life dazed and confused. It doesn’t take a lot to set them off. Their anger at the world and their lack of relevance are easily remedied by picking up an assault weapon, dressing in camouflage and a bulletproof vest, and shooting up a mall or school, place of religion, or any other public place.
They go from obscurity and self-pity to a Superman appearing on the front pages of newspapers throughout America. Their “fame” will be considerable. People will no longer take their existence for granted.
And all of this is courtesy of the media and government providing names and histories.
It needs to stop.
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