Are you glued to the TV listening to the details of back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton? Does your heart break when your elementary school age grandchildren tell you about the active shooter drills in school? The documented and deeply disturbing increase of mass shootings in the United States has been covered in excruciating detail.
However, what we say, what we write in papers and what is reported on TV can propel an already vulnerable person into action. The fame and adulation given to the person who has killed may seem a desirable alternative to someone who is isolated, feels rejected, is in psychological pain and is motivated by hate. It is not well known that media coverage of mass shootings can either contribute to contagion (copycat behavior) or reduce risk.
Although the greater and more important task for our nation is to eliminate the escalating atmosphere of hatred that has propelled the proliferation of mass murders and to create one of mutual respect for all people, there are important tasks that we can tackle. One of them is changing our expectations of what we expect from media coverage. We can become informed about what is helpful and what is harmful. Repeated reporting of details about a mass shooter may increase a vulnerable person’s identification with the perpetrator and move him into action, which may lead to a second mass shooting.
We all want to see “who did it,” but this may interfere with the investigation, or as happened in Dayton, an incorrect photo and website were placed on social media by citizens. How quickly we hear that the perpetrator had a “mental health problem,” when, in fact, most people with mental health issues are non-violent. The research says that mass killings (4 vicitms or more)
are most often perpetrated by people with a history of domestic violence, substance abuse,
and criminal behavior . . . rather than mental health issues. Over-simplifying causality as a “mental health problem” takes us off the hook from looking at the many complex issues that lead up to an act of terror.
If there is a documented mental illness, media coverage can be helpful when it recognizes and includes multiple factors (lost job, sick child, failure to reach family expectations for education and employment, car broke down) and quietly keeps reinforcing that asking for help is a sign of strength. It is important to avoid identifying unique factors in the shooting (largest number of victims, speed of shootings) which may feed into a potential perpetrator’s need for recognition.
Release of 911 calls and videos taken either by citizens or police body cams need to be sparingly done and certainly not repeated ad nauseum on TV. They are both incredibly re-traumatizing for victims and others who were at the scene, or who were involved in previous mass shootings. Videos might stir into action the next potential mass murderer who wants exposure, notoriety, decrease in isolation and seeks glory through violence.
There should be minimal use of a manifesto and any images, drawings and photos that glorify violence. Remove weapons from photos of the perpetrator to be shown to the public. An intrinsic goal of any coverage of mass shootings should contain frequently repeated encouragement to seek help and to call specific hotline numbers and community resources that are available. Stories about the victims and their families should far outnumber references to the murderer.
The problem is not the media. Rather it is the birth and proliferation of mass shootings that is the problem. The need to develop and disseminate guidelines for coverage is a response to this horror.
With caution not to become hyper-vigilant, what can you and I do in our own community? Most importantly, we can work to create a loving community that is welcoming to all. At the same time, we can inform ourselves about typical warning signs of a person who appears to be struggling and ask how we can most effectively help.
We can become more aware of behaviors such as openly admiring and seeking to emulate a violent person (and asking if that admiration is accompanied by the search for and/or acquisition of guns and other weapons), hearing or seeing explicit descriptions of intentions to harm or kill, and asking whether or not someone is looking over a certain location too often.
Follow your gut reaction if you begin to feel uncomfortable about a person’s behavior. Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals in the fields of mental health or law enforcement if you witness concerning actions or overhear someone expressing intentions of violent behavior.
This commentary does NOT deal with the politically controversial causes of the alarming increase of mass shootings in the United States. It seeks to begin a dialogue about guidelines for public commentary about these tragic events. That being said, let us now turn to action to end gun violence in the USA.
— The writer, a clinical social worker specialist, lives in Sperryville.