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Is media over-coverage of mass shootings causing more shootings?

2022 ended with a total record of 690 recorded mass shootings, with more than 45,000 people killed. The bad news: 2023 is en route to shattering that record. Within the year's first month, 68 mass shootings have already occurred. On Lunar New Year's Eve, January 21—11 elders were killed at Monterey Park. Two days later, seven were killed at Half Moon Bay. And only a few hours later, another shooting in Oakland.


What are the chances of three mass shootings occurring back to back to back? Could this be the start of another horrific trend of mass shootings?


Illustrated by Emma Mccolgan


By Catherine Qin, Lucia Liu, and Daniel Gong

 

In the past 3 years, mass shooting incidents have entered the 600s and hate crimes are skyrocketing. Between 2021-2022, more than 11,4000 Asian hate crimes have been reported, an increase of 339 percent. Large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco far surpass their records from 2020. Despite California’s crime rates increasing in 2021; overall, violent crime trends are fairly stable and relatively low compared to the peak in the 1920s.


Hate crimes, especially Asian hate crimes have seen a significant increase. Recently, in January, an 18-year-old Indiana University student was targeted and stabbed in the head seven times for “being Chinese”. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first. We’ve seen so many Asians, from young adults to seniors, brutally attacked in the streets.


According to a survey done by Ipsos, 82% of Asian Americans agreed they faced discrimination as a group as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the reported hate crimes back in 2020, 64% were motivated by a bias against race overall.


Amount of guns owned is constant, but mass shooting rates have increased, especially in the past three years, suggesting that there has been no correlation between the two factors. Despite gun ownership fluctuating between 37-47% over the past 50 years, shootings have stayed at a relatively low level for the past forty, only skyrocketing over the past ten years. So, if gun proliferation is not the answer to the increase in shootings, then what is?


One possible explanation is the “contagion” effect. With such a spike in the number of mass shootings and hate crimes, many wonder whether these events are interlinked or influenced by one another. The term “contagion” effect, similar to the “copycat effect”, has been a theory for the increase in mass shootings. When compared to behavior, the metaphor explains how certain behaviors could “spread” like viruses across a group of people. Regardless, in a contagion mass shooting, “[i]t's not necessarily that the killer admires the previous ones” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University.


Imitation, or “copycat”, is not entirely the same as “contagion”. Imitation “does not suggest that a person will always perform an exact copy of the model’s behavior; rather, it suggests that the person will perform a behavior with similar characteristics” (Meindl and Ivy). When mass shooters imitate other mass shooters, they aren’t necessarily following the sequence of events to the T.


However, with increased media attention, research has shown that media can influence imitation. Some argue that violent media coverage “triggers” crimes, while others see it as “a source of information about techniques and styles (copycat), not as a motivation for the crime.” Usually, when a mass shooting occurs, there is extensive media coverage on the whys, backstories, motivations, photos, and videos, all put out to the public. The media are inadvertently “advertising” these shootings. Interesting news such as mass shootings drives both viewership and profits up.


The extensive coverage of mass shootings is like a performance stage. The deadlier the shooting is, the more “hype” and attention are placed on the event. There’s this lingering desire for “glory” and attention from the general public. Shootings aren’t like kidnappings, which are done secretly. Shootings are like a person waving a big red flag and yelling “Look at me!” The media are an important source for such behavior, but not all mass shooting acts reside with the media. Some individuals have the motivation to commit a mass killing and another crime could help start the ball rolling, but that doesn’t mean it’s a direct cause. They might tell themselves, “Okay, that person has done it, and so can I.”


However, even though the dots seemingly connect, there is still ambiguity between these relations. Most studies are “theoretical” in a way, as they’re more based on observations and common knowledge. It is hard to figure out the true motivations just through a study because many limiting factors go into these types of decisions. The theory doesn’t necessarily “provide information on what factors might influence another person to commit a mass shooting or how the occurrence of a mass shooting can set the occasion for someone to commit a similar act” (National Center for Health Research).


For instance, Emmett commits a mass shooting that is now being broadcasted nationwide. But why did this occur? First, Jimmy had the motivation to intentionally hurt people. He was jealous of the people around him and wanted attention. Then, the recent news coverage of shootings across the nation “inspired” him. Many people were committing mass shootings, which prompted Emmett to go down the same path. And finally, gun control problems. California has strict gun laws, but Emmett still managed to get a gun despite his past. It’s hard to pinpoint which of these steps (or factors) caused Emmett to commit such an atrocity, which gives an excellent example of why the causation of mass shootings is not so defined.


Ultimately, it’s important to build awareness.


Some people are good at effectively marketing and propagating news, which can easily sway and influence people. Changing the way the media portrays mass shootings can be difficult because they rely heavily on these types of news to gain viewership and revenues. In addition, the media is constantly changing. Individuals, rather than large corporate entities, are becoming popular news outlets, making it harder for permanent change to be put into effect.


Instead, one way media channels could do this is to “deny shooters the fame they desire by not sharing so many details about them and instead direct their attention to the victims and their stories. Campaigns like Don’t Name Them and No Notoriety urge the media to cover tragic incidents without naming the shooters or describing their lives or motivations.” Limiting the fame and attention spotlighted on the mass shooters and the event will help reduce prospective shooters from becoming copycat shooters.


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