How the Media Abets ‘Fame-Seeking’ Mass Shooters

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Media coverage of mass shooters feeds their urge for fame and notoriety, according to a study published in Aggression and Violent Behavior.

Half of the 10 most widely covered mass shootings since 1999 were perpetrated by individuals classified as “fame-seekers,” measured by their actions both before and after the incidents, according to the study co-authored by Jason R. Silva, an assistant professor at William Paterson University; and Emily Ann Greene-Colozzi, a doctoral candidate at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Blaming the “symbiotic relationship” between mass media and mass shooters, the study argued that news outlets’ “efforts to satiate the public’s fascination with violence (by) reporting …sensational and violent forms of homicide,” is exploited by so-called “fame-seekers” wielding guns.

The authors said that their research, which found an apparent “media bias toward perpetrators who actively seek out fame,” suggests “the media is not responding to the characteristics of the event itself, like casualties or location, but is instead devoting attention to fame-seekers, at least in part, because of the fame-seeking behaviors they exhibit before and during the attack.”

The authors identified 45 cases out of the 308 incidents of mass shootings between 1996 and 2018 that they categorized as “fame-seeking.” Five of the ten most widely covered incidents since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting were perpetrated by individuals who wanted media attention, they found.

“Fame-seeking mass shooters are differentiated from other mass shooters by their explicit desire for infamy,” they wrote, noting that the media is quick to take the bait.

“The media has been providing sensational coverage to mass shooters for decades, [but] only recently has the general public become aware of the ramifications of this attention,” the study said.

The researchers found that “96 percent of fame-seeking mass shooters received at least one mention in the New York Times, compared to about 74 percent of their [non-fame seeking] counterparts.”

“In fact, the Columbine, Sandy Hook, Tucson, Virginia Tech, and the Orlando shooters received 38 percent of all the articles dedicated to all mass shootings from 1966 to May 2018,” the study added.

The authors offered the example of the May 2018 Santa Fe, Tx high school shooting, which left 10 dead and 13 wounded. Just before the event, the shooter posted a photo on Facebook with the message, “BORN TO KILL.”

Within hours of the attack, his name and face were seen by the public around the world.

Photos of the shooter surfaced afterwards, showing him in a black trench coat similar to the “iconic attire” the Columbine shooters wore.

The fame-seeking perpetrators identified in the study were overwhelmingly young white males (80 percent) targeting schools. In addition, they often perceived themselves as victims.

The study found that these shooters were more likely to use multiple weapons (often obtained illegally), and exhibited signs of mental illness (66.7 percent), grandiose behaviors (86.7 percent), narcissism, and suicidal tendencies (42.2 percent).

Silva suggested their urge to revenge real or perceived social rejection and isolation motivated a compulsion to make their acts as widely known as possible.

With the number of “fame-seeking” shooters growing since the turn of the century, the authors said it was time for the media to acknowledge its role.

“In many ways, the media controls both what issues the public views and how this information is framed,” they wrote, suggesting that the press “can help to discourage copycats and fame-seekers through anonymized narratives.”

But it isn’t certain that such forbearance will work.

After a September 2019 shooting in West Texas, Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke refused to provide the name of the gunman on live television.

“I’m not going to give him any notoriety for what he did,” Gerke told the Associated Press.

Nevertheless, within minutes, Twitter lit up, circulating his name like wildfire. Twitter users accessed the information easily from the Odessa Police Department’s Facebook page.

In this era of a saturation of social media and around-the-clock news, it’s “next to impossible to keep a lid on such information,” the Associated Press concluded.

Nevertheless, the study warned that the concentrated amount of media attention obtained by perpetrators leaves the impression that the press is reinforcing their initial motivations, and paves the way for “copycat” actions.

“While the ‘No Notoriety‘ campaign and ‘Don’t Name Them’ movement have been vital for reducing attention to perpetrators — and focusing on victims — there is still a need for further….responsible reporting of mass shootings,” the researchers wrote.

The full study, Fame-seeking Mass shooters in America: Severity, Characteristics, and Media Coverage can be downloaded here.

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.

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