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Does Media Coverage Of Mass Shootings Lead To More Violence?

News coverage of high-profile mass shootings on cable news has adopted near clockwork patterns: first comes shock and the scramble for information, followed by calls for new gun restrictions, then reporting and speculation about the motives of the shooter (“Is evil or mental illness to blame?”).

The remainder of the time is spent toggling between analysis of why the US. sees these shootings so regularly, how the shooter got their gun and which signs of violence could have been noticed earlier, The Guardian reports.

The cycle has become the norm as mass shootings have increased in the past decade, forcing researchers – and responsible journalists – to grapple with questions about the repercussions of all-day coverage of the carnage, followed by stories about partisan debates and the shooter’s motivations,.

Epidemiologists and social scientists have found that gun violence at the community level can be contagious, with one shooting begetting the next. Is there such a thing as media contagion?

In 2015, researchers found that mass shootings were contagious and are more likely to happen in the two weeks after another shooting.

It is unclear whether this period of contagion is related to news coverage. Sherry Towers, lead researcher on the study, said the team found that shootings didn’t cluster geographically, but chronologically, suggesting that exposure to the “contagion” is widespread. Towers suspects that aspects of media coverage play a role, but cautions that more research is needed. A 2021 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice found that news coverage has little impact on whether or not one mass shooting will be followed by another. Rather, the research concluded, coverage is more likely to increase fear and anxiety among the public, not drive more shootings.

Fringe online message boards such as 8chan and tech platforms including YouTube and Instagram face continued scrutiny for how they handle footage of mass attacks, shooters’ manifestos and endorsements of violence.

“Internet culture is a part of it in that there are places that people can go to get horrible ways of thinking reinforced,” said Elizabeth Skewes, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The people who perpetrate mass killings are able to find information about shooters without guidance from traditional news outlets, in online spaces where violent and extremist content propagates, but that doesn’t mean traditional media shouldn’t be thoughtful about the way they cover mass shootings, argued Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI agent and profiler.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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