After Mass Shooting, Public Wants Stories of ‘Heroes’, Not Shooters: Study

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A candlelight service outside the White House for victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings. Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr

Americans are more interested in reading stories that focused on courageous bystanders  after a mass shooting than on the shooters or their victims, according to a study in the American Behavioral Scientist.

Researchers who conducted an electronic survey of 212 adults, aged 35 to 44 years, to examine their interest in reading different kinds of news coverage of a school shooting, called it an example of “information-seeking behavior.”

The study “Covering Mass Murder: An Experimental Examination of the Effect of News Focus — Killer, Victim, or Hero — on Reader Interest” was part of an aggregate of studies compiled by the Journalist’s Resource group at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy to examine media coverage of mass shootings.

“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,” wrote study co-authors Jack Levin, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University, and Julie B. Wiest, a sociologist at West Chester University.

“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.”

A second study conducted by Ohio State University researchers found that whites involved in mass shootings are more likely to be associated with mental illness in media coverage than African Americans.

Researchers concluded that “the odds that white shooters will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 19 times greater than the odds for black shooters.”

The study, “Mental Illness, the Media, and the Moral Politics of Mass Violence: The Role of Race in Mass Shootings Coverage,” was based on an analysis of news articles written about mass shootings between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2015, in an effort to examine how journalists portray perpetrators of different ethnicities.

“The odds that a Latino shooter will receive the mental illness frame are roughly 12 times greater when compared to Blacks,” the study said.

The study was published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 

In a third study, researchers examined journalists’ attitudes about news coverage of mass shootings in the U.S. and found that journalists, though by a small margin, agreed that coverage is “sensational” and most agreed that the way newsrooms cover these events “is an ethical issue.”

“Most journalists were in favor of perpetrator coverage and did not believe it glamorized suspected perpetrators,” the study concluded.

“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 study “Covering Mass Shootings: Journalists’ Perceptions of Coverage and Factors Influencing Attitudes” was published in the Journalism Practice journal.

In a fourth study, researchers examined The New York Times’ coverage of 90 mass shootings between 2000 and 2012 to see how to see how factors such as victim counts, the location of a shooting and the shooter’s race affect the newsworthiness of each event.

The researchers found that 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. The also found that incidents occurring in locations other than schools garnered less coverage.

The study, “Mass Shootings and the Media: Why All Events Are Not Created Equal,” was published in Journal of Crime and Justice.

In the final study of the compilation, researchers examined New York Times articles stretching back 50 years and found that massacres at schools, government buildings and religious institutions got more coverage than those occurring at businesses.

Also, shooters of Middle Eastern descent received more coverage than shooters of other races.

The study, “The Media’s Coverage of Mass Public shootings in America: Fifty Years of Newsworthiness,” was published in the International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice.

This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Gabriel Ware.

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