After a wave of teen suicides in the 1980s, news outlets began reporting on these deaths more cautiously. Similar guidelines could help prevent more shooting sprees.
You might not have noticed, but the mass media rarely reports on suicides, particularly teen suicides. When it does, the coverage is careful, understated, and dampened. This is no accident: Following guidelines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Mental Health, the media carefully and voluntarily avoids sensationalizing such deaths especially among teenagers. They almost never make the news unless the person is a public figure; methods of suicide are rarely mentioned; suicide pacts are not reported upon.
This is for good reason: Suicide, especially among teens, is contagious. It's a morbidly attractive idea that offers an established path of action for a troubled youngster. And we know from research in many fields that establishing a path of action -- a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects -- is important in enabling follow-through.
This, for example, is exactly why political campaigns ask people about where and how they plan to vote -- imagined events are more likely to be carried out in real life. If you have a full story in your head, you are more likely to enact it, step by step. We also know such "contagion" effects are especially strong in adolescence and young adulthood -- an especially turbulent time for mental health.
In the Middle Ages, psychosis may have involved visions of the devil. Today, it can involve dressing in pseudo-combat gear and walking through a public place in a blaze of violence.
As a sociologist, I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing, and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter -- as well as the detailed and sensationalist reporting of the killer's steps just before and during the shootings -- may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects similar to those found in teen and other suicides.
Indeed, the rate of mass public shootings in the United States has been accelerating. In 2012 alone, there were at least a dozen of them. Seven dead at an Oakland college in April. Five killed at a Seattle coffee shop in May. Twelve killed in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July. Six murdered at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August, and six more killed in Minneapolis in September. Three dead in the Milwaukee spa shootings in October. And most recently, and unimaginably, 20 children as young as six, along with six adults, murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The trend is disturbingly clear.
As many have pointed out, these mass public rampages are inextricably linked with the availability of high-capacity guns and ammunition, as well as with lack of strong mental health infrastructure -- especially for those in late adolescence and early adulthood, the typical onset period for major psychotic disorder.
But it's also important to recognize that while mental illness plagues every society, the ways people express it are heavily influenced by the norms, heroes, anti-heroes, and spectacles of their own places and times. In the Middle Ages, psychosis may have involved visions of the devil, snakes, or witches. In the 21st century, it can involve dressing in pseudo-combat gear, donning numerous high-powered rifles, and walking through a public place in a blaze of violence. The shock value is part of the goal -- and the higher the shock value, predictably, the higher the ensuing media coverage, which fuels interest in the shooter and creates a whirlwind of attention and spectacle.
My aim here is not to blame the media: such events have undeniable news value, and there is intense public interest in uncovering their details. But it's important to recognize that such incidents are not mono-causal, and sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that contributes to these rampages.
We need to figure out how to balance the public interest in learning about a mass shooting with the public interest in reducing copycat crime. The guidelines on reporting on teen suicides were established after a spate of teenage suicides in the United States, some through suicide pacts, in the 1980s. Those who created the guidelines looked at examples from other countries -- for example, the subway suicides in Vienna in the 1980s, which decreased after the media changed its coverage -- and provided specific recommendations: Don't refer to the word suicide in the headline. Don't report the method of the suicide. Don't present it as an inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy person.
With that as a model, here are some initial recommendations.
1. Law enforcement should not release details of the methods and manner of the killings, and those who learn those details should not share them. In other words, there should be no immediate stories about which guns exactly were used or how much robo-cop gear was utilized. There should be no extensive timelines -- no details about which room was entered first or which victim was killed second. In particular, there should be no reporting of the killer's words, or actions before or during the shooting.
Yes, I am a scholar of social media and I understand that these things will leak. But there is a big difference between information that can only be found if you really look for it and news stories that are blasted by every television station and paper in the country. At a minimum, we can and should greatly delay the release of these details by weeks, if not months.
2. If and when social media accounts of the killers are located, law enforcement should work with the platforms to immediately pull them. Yes, there will be screenshots, and again, I am not proposing that such information can be entirely shut out. But by making it harder to find, we can dampen the impact of the spectacle.
3- The name of the killer should not be revealed immediately. If possible, law enforcement and media sources should agree to withhold it for weeks. The identity can be released later during trial (if there is one) or during the release of the investigative report. Once again, merely delaying the release of information may greatly reduce the spectacle effect. The name may "leak," but that is very different from the full blast of attention that currently surrounds the perpetrators immediately after each incident.
Similarly, the killer should not be profiled extensively, at least not at first. There should not be an intense search for clues or reasoning beyond "troubled person commits unspeakable act; wish he had gotten help earlier," in as flat a reporting style as possible. We know that the killers tend to be young men, and they tend to have mental health issues. We do not need to know which exact video games they played, what they wore, or what their favorite bands were.
4. The intense push to interview survivors and loved ones in their most vulnerable moments should be stopped. This, too, may help reduce the sense of spectacle and trauma.
I don't claim that these are the only and best ways to deal with this issue. but I offer them as fodder for a conversation that I hoped will be taken up by media and mental health experts. And we shouldn't be concerned that such guidelines will be impossible to follow. Just yesterday, news outlets revealed that Richard Engel of NBC had been kidnapped in Syria -- and released. The information about his capture, though obviously newsworthy, was held back in order to aid the negotiations and rescue efforts.
There are many such cases of media voluntarily acting to dampen coverage of certain events, especially when it involves one of their own. Let's entreat them to do it for the sake of potential shooting victims as well.