By JENNIFER JOHNSTON
Saturday, February 17, 2018
Assistant professor of psychology at Western New Mexico University
The coverage of the shooting in Florida has been particularly egregious: Interviews with students just as they're exiting the school; reporters tweeting at students in a lock-down situation; CNN broadcasting cellphone video footage that had been recorded from inside the school, warning viewers of its graphic and disturbing nature.
CNN posts the footage online too, and if you click through, they will count all those views and decide that they should continue broadcasting live film of the next mass shooting, because we "like" it.
Although the victims of shootings are random, the occurrence of shootings is not random throughout the year. National news on one shooting seems to trigger the next shooter who was contemplating doing something similar. Then we often see a latent period for a month or two before another rash of shootings occurs.
That was not always how it used to be. And I am talking five years ago and 10 years ago. The shootings clustered, yes, but less frequently. Around 2012, the average number of incidents a year was about 15. Around 2003, there were about seven incidents a year. From 1950 to 2000, only about three incidents or less occurred a year. The past three years, we have had 20 or more incidents each year. The number of fatalities has also tripled.
I might have written a few years ago that there is something wrong with some of us, but not all of us. Now, I am more inclined to agree with NBC's Megyn Kelly, a statement I never thought I would make, when she said, "something in our culture is off ... something is just wrong," after the mass shooting in Texas last November. It looked like mathematician Sherry Towers's contagion model was correct. Prof.
Towers, an Arizona State University researcher, determined that mass shootings over the past 15 years cluster in time: For every three, a fourth is nearly guaranteed within 13 days.
In 2017, the church shooting in Nashville, on Sept. 24 was followed by the Las Vegas massacre, and then a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex. There was, actually, another mass shooting near Edgewood, Md., on Oct. 18 where three people died and three were injured, but it was not well covered in the media.
Nine days after Sutherland Springs, almost like clockwork, people were murdered in Corning, Calif. Then, there was a merciful reprieve, as the model predicts, for a couple of months. But, by mid-January, the United States saw a spate of school shootings ending with Florida.
Mass shooting is contagious - it spreads - but who is spreading it? You do. The media do.
Violent crime, except for mass shootings, has slowly but steadily declined in the United States since the 1990s. Of course, the United States still tops other developed countries, often many times over, in murder. Only Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, Mexico and Russia, all of which could conceivably be considered "developed nations," have more per-capita homicides than we do (according to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, International Homicide Statistics, 2015).
I am a media psychologist. I study the effects media have on us and also how we affect media. I asked the question: What could be causing this swift increase?
Starting with the so-called "usual suspects": gun laws, mental-illness identification and media violence. Although all are mentioned by the media in an attempt to provide answers in the midst of the "senselessness" of it all, I wondered which of these has really changed since about 2000.
What I concluded is that U.S. gun laws and mental-illness identification systems have not appreciably loosened over the past 20 years. Actually, the argument can be made that in a number of our states, both have tightened up in recent years.
So, that leaves media violence.
We know that people's time spent watching screens has increased a great deal since the advent of the internet and social media. Whereas time spent watching TV is largely unchanged in 20 years (it's gone from 3 to 3.5 hours a day), people now spend an estimated four more hours surfing the internet for fun or work, engaging with social media and playing games.
But what do we mean by media violence? Violence in entertainment, such as movies and TV?
Violent video games? Violence on YouTube or Facebook? Violence on the news?
To arrive at a definitive conclusion, we would have to first figure out if all this content is more violent now than it was before, as well as determining whether seeing mediated violence, real or scripted, leads to more aggressive acting-out. Yes, many researchers would argue that content has gradually included more and more graphic depictions of violence, and yes, viewing violent content does increase aggression, though usually temporarily, and not as much as people worry about.
Basically, there are other, more insidious problems, harder-to-intervene-in problems, that explain most of people's aggression. Family and neighbourhood violence, desperate social conditions and biological factors such as high testosterone are big causes of aggression. Now, if someone with all those risk factors continually watches violent content, will they be more likely to aggress? Yes.
Media psychologists also find that the more "real" content appears, especially if part of reality TV or news programs, the more impact it is likely to have. Even though we know that entertainment violence and video-game violence is not real and just for "fun," researchers from Stanford University, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, present copious evidence in the book The Media Equation that our base physiology still reacts as though it is real; we cannot stop the brain stem's quick reaction with our slower logical minds. So what about actual violent imagery or reports, such as in the news or on Twitter?
If you are not feeling aggressive and aggrieved, like most of us, the acts elicit a sad and compassionate response, or perhaps an angry response. But if you do feel aggressive and aggrieved, the acts may stimulate a feeling of solidarity, of a call to action, because in the killer, you find a real-life ally.
Someone just like you.
I believe that we have found at least one major culprit in the rise in mass shootings. Our malady, and our unique brand of violence, stems at least in part from the meteoric rise in 24-hour news media coverage. This is one of the few variables that has truly changed over the past 20 years.
Fox News and CNN both found intense ratings increases the more they covered the O.J. Simpson trial and the Columbine highschool shooting in the late nineties. Other news organizations followed suit and even the mature broadcast giants maximize their impact using internet, social media and round-the-clock coverage techniques.
The content of their coverage matters, too. At least half of all the news coverage in the United States focuses on violent crime, despite the fact that violent crime is actually only a small percentage of total crime. Furthermore, there is a great deal more happening in the world than crime, but for financial reasons, crime is considered extremely "newsworthy" here. We have moved in the United States from investigative journalism as the bedrock of any network's news division (a very expensive paradigm), to surface retellings of only the most emotion-laden facts (a very cheap paradigm that actually makes networks money).
I argue that without the new news media as a carrier, mass homicide would have remained an obscure back-shelf disease that almost no one had heard of and no one was scared of. For example, before 1999, the only mass shooting anyone in the United States could think of was the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting that, by the way, when I googled the shooting to clarify the date, the image I see, front and centre, is the shooter's. As though he is worth remembering in place of Thomas Frederick Eckman and his unborn child, a boy (the baby's mother, Claire, survived), and Billy Paul Speed, an officer who tried to help, plus 12 others. And 28 were wounded, including Robert Heard who was a journalist on campus. It is not 1998 any more. Twenty years later, if you ask anyone about mass shootings, they can probably name at least five, including, no doubt, the names, backgrounds and supposed motives of the killers.
What can Canada and other developed countries do to prevent the spread of media-homicide contagion before it reaches their country? It will sound radical, but I suggest a return to using news programs to inform only, not make money. I and other journalism scholars recommend toning down the emotional content of programming and spending more time on in-depth, multidimensional stories, which is what the complexity of most newsworthy issues demand anyway. If news is "boring" and a bit complicated, journalists are probably doing their jobs right.
We all need to recognize that mass homicide is contagious, just as suicide has been proven to be contagious. News organizations should follow the same protocol they do with reporting suicide: restraint; delay, to respect victims and their families; no names, no faces of shooters. Doing this, we can also deny mass shooters one of their primary motivations: fame. Journalists need to leave the profiling to police and investigators. All the media's digging into the supposed "critical" backgrounds, stories, thoughts, feelings and weapon choices of shooters have not saved one life, has not prevented any shooting.
I believe the media have specifically contributed to the threefold rise in mass shootings this century. Inadvertently, or not, there is blood on the media's hands, and on ours, for devouring their content.
A negative version of the news photo taken after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
JOE RAEDLE, GETTY IMAGES/PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL.