How journalists cover mass shootings: Research to consider

Memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 2018. (Official White House photo
Memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 2018. (Official White House photo

By Denise-Marie Ordway

After covering a major tragedy such as a mass shooting, it’s helpful for editors and reporters to review their work. What did they do well? What were their shortcomings and oversights? How did their coverage impact audiences, communities and victims’ families? And just as important: How can the newsroom do a better job next time?

Unfortunately, in the case of mass shootings, some news outlets might have to deal with a next time.

To help guide newsrooms in their conversations about how they cover mass shootings, we’ve gathered a sampling of research that examines news coverage from several angles, including how journalists portray shooters of different races and religious backgrounds. We’ve included two studies that look specifically at how The New York Times covers mass shootings and which factors — for example, the location of a shooting or the perpetrator’s motivation for killing — affect how much time and resources the newspaper dedicates to each event. This collection of research has been updated since it was originally posted in December 2018.

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Media Coverage and Firearm Acquisition in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting
Porfiri, Maurizio; et al. Nature Human Behavior, 2019.

For this study, researchers examined the relationship between news coverage of mass shootings and firearm purchases in the U.S. They find a “potential causal link” between news articles about gun control policies in the aftermath of a mass shooting and increased gun sales. The researchers also find that firearm acquisition increases nationally as well as in states with the weakest firearm laws. “Many firearm control advocates regard the aftermath of a mass shooting to be a fertile policy window: as people’s attention is captured by these gruesome incidents, more restrictive policies might gain traction among policymakers, and legislatures may become more amenable to change,” write the authors, led by New York University professor Maurizio Porfiri. “However, this increased attention may elicit a parallel reaction, in which people may fear that their access to firearms will be soon restrained and, thus, opt to purchase firearms before this happens.”

The researchers analyzed information on mass shootings that they collected from a database created by the investigative news outlet Mother Jones. They looked at 69 mass shootings that occurred in public locations between 1999 and 2017, excluding any that were connected to gang activity or armed robberies. They also examined media coverage of firearm laws and regulations provided by The New York Times and The Washington Post during that time period. Because there is no national registry or record of gun acquisition in the U.S., Porfiri and his colleagues used federal weapons background check numbers as a proxy for gun acquisition. They examined monthly data on background checks conducted between January 1999 and December 2017.

What they found was that federal weapons background checks spiked after a mass shooting. “The highest number of background checks at the national level (n = 2,171,293) was recorded in December 2012, which follows the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting,” they write. They also note that news coverage was most concentrated in January 2013, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre. “The number of background checks increases with the number of mass shootings, and both of these variables increase with relevant media output,” they write.

Can a Non-Muslim Mass Shooter Be a “Terrorist”?: A Comparative Content Analysis of the Las Vegas and Orlando Shootings
Elmasry, Mohamad Hamas; el-Nawawy, Mohammed. Journalism Practice, 2019.

Researchers analyzed news coverage of mass shootings in Las Vegas in 2017 and Orlando in 2016 to determine whether there are differences in the way journalists portrayed the two perpetrators — an American Muslim of Afghani origin and a white, non-Muslim American. They found big differences. Among them: “The Orlando shooting, carried out by a Muslim, was allotted more coverage despite the fact that it produced nine fewer fatalities than the Las Vegas shooting, perpetrated by a white non-Muslim,” the authors write. “The analysis also showed that the examined newspapers were more likely to employ a ‘terrorism’ frame in their coverage of the Orlando shooting than in their coverage of the Las Vegas shooting; link the Orlando mass shooting with the global war on terrorism; and to humanize Stephen Paddock, the white perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting.”

Mohamad Hamas Elmasry, an assistant professor at the University of North Alabama, and Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor at the Queens University of Charlotte, looked at how the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times framed the two shootings. They chose these news outlets, they write, “because of their status as elite American newspapers capable of setting the agenda for other American news outlets, and also because they represent the two largest media markets in the United States and the East and West coasts of the country, respectively.” They studied the newspapers’ coverage during the week following each shooting, analyzing a total of 190 news articles and editorials.

Elmasry and el-Nawawy explain that their findings suggest the Muslim shooter’s religious and ethnic identities might have prompted more news coverage. The Muslim perpetrator was called a “terrorist” in about 38% of articles about the Orlando shooting. The non-Muslim perpetrator was labeled a “terrorist” in 5% of articles about the Las Vegas shooting. Meanwhile, about 55% of articles focusing on the Orlando massacre described the perpetrator as a “gunman,” compared with more than 80% of articles about the Las Vegas killings.

The researchers warn that differences in how the two shooters were framed could reinforce fears of Islam and Muslims. Also, they write that the “downplaying of white male identity in violent crimes carried out by white men may prevent the public’s learning about the potential threat of white male shooters.”

A Comparative Analysis of Media Coverage of Mass Public Shootings: Examining Rampage, Disgruntled Employee, School, and Lone-Wolf Terrorist Shootings in the United StatesSilva, Jason R.; Capellan, Joel A. Criminal Justice Policy Review, forthcoming.

This paper focuses on differences in how journalists cover different types of mass shootings and whether these differences have changed over time. The authors also pose the question: Are newsrooms intentionally emphasizing certain kinds of mass shootings?

To gain insights, the authors compiled a database of mass shootings that happened in public spaces between 1966 and 2016, placing them into one of four categories: school, disgruntled employee, lone-wolf terrorist and rampage. The researchers — Jason Silva of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Joel Capellan of Rowan University — consider a mass public shooting to be “an incident of targeted violence where an offender had killed or attempted to kill four or more victims on a public stage.” A firearm is the primary weapon used in these attacks, which aren’t connected to profit-driven crime such as drug trafficking or gang violence.

Silva and Capellan find that 19% of the 314 shootings identified occurred at schools, including college campuses, and 32% involved disgruntled employees who targeted their current or former place of work. Meanwhile, 13% were “lone-wolf terrorist” shootings in which the perpetrator acted alone, motivated by ideological extremism. The remaining 34%, labeled “rampage” shootings, are those that don’t fall into the other three categories. The authors also examined The New York Times’ print coverage of mass public shootings over the same 50-year period.

What their analyses reveals is that even though school shootings and those perpetrated by lone-wolf terrorists make up a combined 32% of all mass public shootings, they received 75% to 80% of the Times’ total coverage of mass shootings. Conversely, disgruntled employee and rampage shootings make up a combined 68% of all mass public shootings but received 15% to 20% of the news coverage. Silva and Capellan point out that, over time, school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings consistently received a larger number of news articles and words compared with rampage and disgruntled employee shootings. “It is important to note,” the authors write, “that lone-wolf terrorists experienced the highest growth in news coverage between 1966 and 2016. In the 1970s and 1980s, lone-wolf terrorist shootings received an average of 10 to 15 articles, but by the 1990s, news salience increased to 30 articles, and by [the] 2010s, these ideologically motivated shootings received more than 40 articles on average.”

The authors suggest the Times may be purposely giving more attention to school and lone-wolf terrorist shootings. “This study finds the disproportionate amount of coverage given to school and lone-wolf terrorist incidents is not warranted, given their relative threat to public safety,” they write. The emphasis on these two types of mass shootings, Silva and Capellan write, “may serve to (a) potentially distort public anxiety and perceptions of risk and (b) drive into the public policy agenda a range of measures that may be ineffective and even counterproductive in preventing such incidents.” They add that “the relative dearth in coverage of other types of mass shootings (disgruntled employee and rampage violence) threatens to undermine policy and preventive responses.”

Mental Illness, the Media, and the Moral Politics of Mass Violence: The Role of Race in Mass Shootings CoverageDuxbury, Scott W.; Frizzell, Laura C.; Lindsay, Sade L. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2018.

Three researchers from Ohio State University examined news coverage of mass shootings to see how journalists portray perpetrators of different races. A key finding: Stories about white or Latino shooters were much more likely to suggest that mental illness was to blame than stories involving black perpetrators.

“The odds that White shooters will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 19 times greater than the odds for Black shooters,” Scott Duxbury and his colleagues write. “The odds that a Latino shooter will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 12 times greater when compared to Blacks.”

The researchers analyzed news articles written about mass shootings between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2015. They used News Bank and Lexis Nexis to conduct a national search for articles that mention or allude to the race of the perpetrator and the motive or an explanation for the killings. The researchers only examined shootings with four or more victims, excluding the perpetrator.

The research team also discovered that when journalists reported or insinuated that a white shooter was mentally ill, they tended to “establish the offender as a good person suffering from extreme life circumstances.” This happened only sometimes when the shooter was Latino and almost never when the shooter was black.

“Blacks in the mental illness subsample never receive testament to their good character nor do the media ever claim that the shooting was out of character,” the authors explain. “Further … the media only frame White shooters as coming from a good environment.”

When journalists reported a mass shooting was gang related, perpetrators generally were people of color. In these stories, the researchers found that journalists usually referenced the shooters’ criminal histories and portrayed them as public menaces. For example, when people made statements about the shooters, journalists quoted them as saying such things as, “Everyone is relieved that this individual is off the street” and “He is part of some kind of new generation that is absolutely heartless.”

Covering Mass Murder: An Experimental Examination of the Effect of News Focus — Killer, Victim, or Hero — on Reader InterestLevin, Jack; Wiest, Julie B. American Behavioral Scientist, 2018.

Jack Levin, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University, and Julie B. Wiest, a sociologist at West Chester University, conducted an electronic survey of 212 adults, aged 35 to 44 years, to gauge their interest in reading different kinds of news coverage of a school shooting. They found that people were much more interested in reading a story that focused on the actions of a courageous bystander than those focusing on the shooter or his victims.

For the study, Levin and Wiest presented survey participants with different versions of the same news story. In all three versions, the photos, font sizes, layout, main headline and pull-out quote were identical. But one story focused on the killer. One focused on a victim. And one story focused on a “hero student who stopped the attack.”

Nearly 73% of participants chose to read the hero story after the first paragraph. Meanwhile, 55.7% chose to read the story that focused on the killer beyond the first paragraph. Of those assigned to read the article that focused on the victim, 52.2% opted to read past the first paragraph.

“Subjects’ greater interest in the hero-focused story may be interpreted as an information-seeking behavior, as it presumably would provide information about how to stop a mass murderer and avoid future victimization,” the authors write. “Although all stories suggested a certain threat, those that focused on the killer and victim offered uncertain solutions … which may explain why they were less interesting to subjects.”

The researchers note that coverage focusing on courageous bystanders could prompt positive copycat behavior. “If the copycat phenomenon applies to increasing the prevalence of mass killers, why would it not also apply to increasing the prevalence of heroes who take an active role in ending a mass murder?” they write.

The researchers also found that people who reported feeling anxious or afraid that they or someone they love could become victims of a mass murder were more interested in reading stories about mass shootings than individuals who said they felt little or no fear.

Levin and Wiest write that their findings provide lessons for journalists.

“Although there is some evidence that sensational and shocking coverage of crime events may increase news consumption (likely by way of inducing fear), news outlets that employ such tactics may not be giving consumers what they want,” they write. “It seems clear that news consumers seek crime stories that reduce uncertainty, offer practical solutions, and include relevant contextual information that suggests the possibility of an effective response to violence.”

Covering Mass Shootings: Journalists’ Perceptions of Coverage and Factors Influencing AttitudesDahmen, Nicole Smith; Abdenour, Jesse; McIntyre, Karen; Noga-Styron, Krystal E. Journalism Practice, 2018.

This study, led by faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, examines journalists’ attitudes about news coverage of mass shootings in the U.S. Among the main takeaways: Journalists, by a small margin, agreed that coverage is “sensational” and most agreed that the way newsrooms cover these events “is an ethical issue.” Meanwhile, journalists generally did not acknowledge a connection between mass shooting coverage and copycat shooters — a connection found in previous research.

“Most journalists were in favor of perpetrator coverage and did not believe it glamorized suspected perpetrators,” the authors write. “Most news workers likely do not want to believe that their work contributes to further carnage and suffering, despite evidence showing that fame-seeking mass shooters and a contagion effect do, in fact, exist.”

The researchers surveyed 1,318 journalists from newspapers with a circulation of 10,000 or more, asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with certain statements. About half of the people who participated were reporters while almost 26% were editors, 14.5% were photographers or videographers and 2.4% were columnists. Most — 60% — were men and 89.4% were white.

Nicole Dahmen and her colleagues find that age is a powerful predictor of how journalists feel about mass shooting coverage. “Older journalists held a more favorable opinion of the state of mass shooting coverage, more strongly supported coverage of perpetrators, and were less receptive to the idea that mass shooting coverage is an ethical issue,” they write.

They also discovered that editors had a more positive view of coverage than reporters and photographers and that white journalists had a much higher opinion of it than journalists of other races. “Non-white respondents were more likely to be critical of mass shooting coverage,” the researchers write.

Mass Shootings and the Media: Why All Events Are Not Created EqualSchildkraut, Jaclyn; Elsass, H. Jaymi; Meredith, Kimberly. Journal of Crime and Justice, 2017.

For this study, researchers analyzed one large national newspaper’s coverage of mass shootings to see how factors such as victim counts, the location of a shooting and the shooter’s race affect the newsworthiness of each event. Here’s the gist of what they learned: “Race/ethnicity and victim counts are the most salient predictor of whether or not a shooting was covered, with perpetrators of Asian and other descent and those events with higher victim counts generating more prominent coverage (measured as higher article and word counts), whereas incidents occurring in locations other than schools yielded less coverage,”they write.

The research team, led by Jaclyn Schildkraut of State University of New York at Oswego, examined The New York Times’ coverage of 90 mass shootings between 2000 and 2012. The team only included mass shootings in which victims and locations were targeted at random or “for their symbolic value.” Researchers excluded shootings connected to gang violence and militant or terrorist activities.

The team found considerable variation in coverage. For nearly 78% of shootings, coverage was limited to fewer than five articles. Half the shootings received fewer than 1,500 words. Almost 60% of all the articles the Times printed about mass shootings during this period focused on five incidents: the attempted assassination of  Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Fort Hood military base in 2009, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012.

Schildkraut and her colleagues found that when the shooter was Asian or from “other” racial groups — a category that includes Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American and multiracial people — the Times published more and longer stories about the incident than when the shooter was white. The analysis also revealed that shootings occurring in the Northeast garnered more attention than those in the South, which, historically, has tended to be more violent.

The Media’s Coverage of Mass Public Shootings in America: Fifty Years of Newsworthiness
Silva, Jason R.; Capellan, Joel A. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 2018.

This study also looks at variation in The New York Times’ coverage of mass shootings, but over a longer period — 50 years. Jason Silva of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Joel Capellan of Rowan University analyzed 3,510 articles written about 314 mass shootings that occurred in the U.S. between 1966 and 2016. For the purposes of their research, they defined a mass shooting as “an incident of targeted violence where an offender has killed or attempted to kill four or more victims on a public stage.” Gang-related shootings were excluded.

Silva and Capellan also found a lot of variation in the Times’ coverage. Three quarters of the shootings drew little coverage – fewer than four articles and fewer than 4,028 words each. Meanwhile, 68% of all articles the newspaper wrote about mass shootings during those five decades focused on 15 incidents, starting with the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966. The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 received the most coverage of any of the shootings, followed by the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. The Times published a total of 503 articles about the Columbine massacre and 248 on Sandy Hook.

Some of the other big takeaways: Massacres at schools, government buildings and religious institutions got more coverage than those occurring at businesses. Shooters of Middle Eastern descent received more coverage than shooters of other races. For example, the Times covered 90% of shootings involving a Middle Eastern perpetrator, 74.3% of shootings with a white perpetrator and 60% of shootings with a Latino perpetrator. Shootings motivated by ideological extremism were much more likely to be covered than those that were not.

“Eight of the top 15 cases were ideologically motivated,” Silva and Capellan write. “The finding that Middle Eastern perpetrators are more newsworthy also suggests the overrepresentation of jihad-inspired mass public shootings in media coverage of the phenomenon.”

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