Media Coverage Is 'a Sort of Advertisement to Mass Murder'

Media gathers to hear Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin speak after the shooting at Umpqua Community College last week. (Photo: Getty Images)

Media Coverage Is 'a Sort of Advertisement to Mass Murder'

Investigators are reportedly looking into whether the apparent killer in the latest mass shooting announced his murderous intentions beforehand on the social media site 4chan. Because of 4chan's anonymity, it's impossible to say whether the poster who warned "don't go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest" actually was Chris Harper-Mercer, identified as the person who shot nine people to death at Umpqua Community College the next day before being killed by police. But one chilling line from the thread reads as a declaration of motive:

This is the only time I'll ever be in the news I'm so insignificant

Harper-Mercer is reported to have blogged on the website Kickass Torrents, and a post there said to be his discusses a similar sentiment (Heavy, 10/1/15). Discussing an earlier highly publicized murderer, Vester Flanagan of Roanoke, Virginia, Harper-Mercer wrote:

I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.

The post described Flanagan as "a victim not only of his own perception but also of our social media soaked environment."

These remarks track with what some social scientists have long been saying about events like mass shootings: that they are contagious, and that the contagion is spread through the media. In an article that ran in Extra! (7-8/99; reprinted from the Village Voice, 5/5/99) after the 1999 Columbine massacre, Jason Vest cited

people like Park Dietz and David Phillips, whose studies have found that news reports-not movies or video games-are the prime media mover in begetting copycats....

In one pioneering study, Phillips [of UC/San Diego] found that not only did single-driver car crashes increase after publicized suicides, and multiple-fatality crashes increase after mass murder/suicides, but the numbers seemed to have a relationship to the style and saturation of media coverage. In another investigation, UCLA's Dietz (arguably the nation's top criminal forensic psychiatrist) found that suicide, product tampering and mass murder lent themselves to imitation, and that the degree of imitation was inspired by sustained and sensationalized media coverage.

"I actually wrote a long series of suggested guidelines for the World Health Organization that would make stories like this less likely to be imitated without making it so the stories disappeared from the paper," Phillips told Vest. "You have to think of these stories as a sort of advertisement to mass murder."

In 2012, after the Sandy Hook elementary school mass murder, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote an Atlantic piece (12/19/12) offering tentative media guidelines for preventing mass murder contagion. Noting that "we know from research in many fields that establishing a path of action -- a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects -- is important in enabling follow-through," Tufecki suggested that

Law enforcement should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them. In other words, there should be no immediate stories about which guns exactly were used or how much robo-cop gear was utilized. There should be no extensive timelines -- no details about which room was entered first or which victim was killed second. In particular, there should be no reporting of the killer's words, or actions before or during the shooting.

She went on to advocate that "the killer should not be profiled extensively, at least not at first.... We do not need to know which exact video games they played, what they wore, or what their favorite bands were."

Since 2012, when Tufekci offered her guidelines "as fodder for a conversation that I hoped will be taken up by media and mental health experts," public mass shootings have accelerated-as you would expect them to do if copycats are inspiring copycats in a feedback loop. Perhaps it's time to have that conversation about how media contribute to a cycle of mass violence-and how a different style of reporting on such violence might help put an end to it.

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