Journalists, Mass Shootings and the ‘Copycat Effect’

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Candlelight memorial for victims of the Newtown school shootings. Photo by Bill Morrow via Flickr

A study based on a survey of 1,300 U.S. newspaper and online journalists found widespread support for naming and publishing photos of perpetrators in mass shooting events, even though research suggests this can lead others to duplicate the crimes—in what’s usually described as a “copycat effect.”

Most of the journalists surveyed were “largely ambivalent” about the connection between the coverage of such shootings and similar incidents that occurred following the tragedy, says Nicole Smith Dahmen, a media scholar at the University of Oregon, who was one of the co-authors of the study.

In an article published this week on the International Journalists’ Network (IJNET) website, Dahmen said the study results showed that “journalists generally supported a breadth of mass shooting coverage, with the implication that citizens will use that information to make responsible choices.”

But, noting that research findings support such a “copycat effect,” she said “journalists should be aware that their perceptions of their work don’t always match the work’s actual impact.” She pointed out that some organizations (such as No Notoriety), law enforcement officials, government officials and journalists are “making the conscious choice to not name the perpetrators of mass shootings.”

The study found that journalists now consider coverage of mass shootings as virtually a “routine” part of their responsibilities. A majority of the journalists appeared to favor traditional “neutral” approaches to coverage of these events, but at the same time many wanted to see more comprehensive reporting that included coverage of community “resilience” in the wake of such tragedies and coverage of “solutions” to the problem of violence.

According to Dahmen, the study showed that most journalists supported “typical perpetrator coverage, including naming and publishing photos of the perpetrator, as well as a perpetrator’s statements, videos and/or manifestos.”

The study also found that age, race, job title, previous coverage of a shooting, and the size of their media outlet, determined journalists’ attitudes towards the reporting of mass shooting events.

Among its other conclusions:

  • Editors were more satisfied with the current state of mass shooting coverage than both reporters and photographers. Editors were also more supportive of perpetrator coverage than all other types of news workers;
  • Older journalists held a more favorable opinion of the state of mass shooting coverage and more strongly supported coverage of perpetrators;
  • Non-white respondents were more likely to be critical of current practices of mass shooting coverage;
  • Journalists at larger newspapers generally thought that the media were doing a “good job” covering mass shootings;
  • Journalists who reflect contextualist values —which emphasize social responsibility and responsible reporting — strongly supported coverage of victims and survivors.

The other study co-authors were Jesse Abdenour of the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon; Karen McIntyre, of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, Virginia Commonwealth University; and Krystal E. Noga-Styron, professor of law and justice, Central Washington University.

The study is available for purchase here.

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