Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Are the Media Making Mass Shootings Worse?

Yes, according to a growing body of research, says criminologist Adam Lankford.… —- Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, Texas, announced in June that Robb Elementary School would be demolished. “You can never ask a child to go back or a teacher to go back in that school, ever,” he said.

What happened in Uvalde was a gruesome tragedy that relates to some of America’s worst pathologies: a fixation on violence, untreated mental illness, large swaths of alienated and angry young men, incompetent and unaccountable police. The media went looking for solutions: What if we could keep guns out of the wrong hands, or get the right people medicated, or reform the police, or fix what’s plaguing angry young men? These are all legitimate questions. But one question the media rarely ask is this: Is the press part of the problem?

A growing body of research says yes. “This is learned behavior and the media coverage is leading more people to learn it and to copy it,” says University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford, who has studied mass killers for more than a decade. “The more victims they kill, the more fame and attention they get. They’re being incentivized by the media coverage to be as destructive as possible.” “There seems to be too much demand for fame in America,” Lankford writes in one paper, “and not enough supply.”

One of Lankford’s studies found that “winning a Super Bowl or Academy Award garnered less media attention than committing a high-profile mass killing.” Perpetrators get pictured more on front pages than do their individual victims, and there’s “a strong correlation between the number of victims harmed in these attacks and the amount of media attention that perpetrators receive.” “The media’s rewarding [these high body counts],” says Lankford. “I think part of [the motive] is clickbait, essentially.”

Produced and edited by Zach Weissmueller. Animations by Tomasz Kaye. Additional graphics by Nodehaus.

Leave a Reply