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The media is an accomplice in mass shootings

Giving coverage to the criminals influences copycat incidents.

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A man leaves a bouquet on a police cruiser parked outside the Boulder Police Department after an officer was one of the victims of a mass shooting at a King Soopers grocery store Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Boulder, Colo.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

On March 16, I watched in horror with most of America as the story of the Atlanta, Georgia, shootings unfolded. And while we were all still reeling, it happened again.

But unlike many, my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath, hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.

But they did. 

While a few showed restraint, most media outlets did exactly what they needed to do to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.

  1. They named the shooter.
  2. They described his characteristics.
  3. They detailed the crime.
  4. They numbered the victims.
  5. They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.

Shootings are a contagion. After a full year where one pandemic has had its way with us, we have a choice now as to whether we invite another one. And the media are thus far acting as perfect accomplices to do so. 

The science is settled. There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influences copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Confidence that media coverage doesn’t just correlate with, but causes, copycat incidents comes from additional studies that showed during media strikes that unintentionally suppress such coverage, no increase in suicides follows.

The same is true of mass public shootings. On Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 1996, a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake (Wash.) junior high school algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates and severely wounded another student. Subsequent media coverage obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for customizing a coat the way he did in order to conceal and deploy multiple weapons efficiently.

But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher at the blackboard, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel “Rage” with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of Feb 2. Then another on Feb. 19. Another on March 11. Yet another on March 13. Along with other similarities, more than one of the apparent copycats cited King’s novel as a creative resource in their crimes as well.

Of course, when the “Rage” pattern became clear, the media scurried to King to get a reaction. King would have been well within the law to defend his right to free speech. He could have used the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument — claiming the problem was the perpetrators’ mental health not his book. 

But he didn’t. He apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at ‘Rage’ and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull “Rage” from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter. 

It’s time our media leaders wake up to the fact that they are not just reporting these crimes. Depending on how they report them, they are accomplices in them.

The media appropriately defends its right to participate fully in a marketplace of ideas. The risk of limiting free speech is clear and substantial. And yet I believe when free speech leads to verifiable harm, it’s time to discuss limits. It’s time we found a way to balance the right to speak freely with the responsibility to influence ethically. It’s time we consider passing a law that requires the media to act with Stephen King’s level of responsibility. 

We have guards against falsely shouting “fire” in a theater “and causing a panic.” Free speech is not unlimited. When it incites crime or influences harm we limit it. It’s clear that the competitive media marketplaces sometimes create a race to the bottom in editorial ethics. The primary concern is too often not the effect a story will have, but the attention it will generate. Media moguls have had 38 years to consider the ethical implications of Phillips’ and others’ findings — and have been found wanting in accepting their responsibility. 

We need to discuss the merits and morality of a law. I don’t suggest a broad one — but one that matches responsibility with influence. It’s already illegal to use free speech to incite others to criminal acts. So if we know that a particular kind of speech is inciting violence, how can we appropriately limit it? Is there a way to do so without creating a slippery slope that limits all speech that tenuously connects to some kind of mischief? And if a law is the wrong device, what can we do to make Stephen King’s response the norm rather than the exception?

For example, we know that when a story names a shooter, his influence is amplified. We know that when his race, gender and other personal characteristics are detailed, those who see themselves as similar to him are far more likely to feel a sense of permission to follow suit. We know details of the crime act as a virtual workshop for would-be acolytes. And for heaven’s sake, when body counts are not only reported but even compared to previous perpetrators, you incite a hideous competition. 

It’s time our media leaders wake up to the fact that they are not just reporting these crimes. Depending on how they report them, they are accomplices in them.

Is it also time that our legislators consider taking up the task the media appears unwilling to assume. We need to match responsibility with influence.

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, co-founder of VitalSmarts and chairman of the board of The Other Side Academy.