The Media and Mass Shootings: How Coverage Shapes National Debates and Actions

The United States’ relationship with firearms is difficult to characterize and quantify. A complex, intersectional network shapes our national discourse: history, geography, media coverage and consumption, political parties, rates of gun violence, religion, mental health attitudes, and many more dynamics influence how individuals view and react to gun-related events. Americans have a unique historical relationship with weapons dating back to our foundation as a revolutionary republic, and a long history of legislative double movement when it comes to implementing firearm controls. However, rising numbers of mass shootings have brought new life to the gun control debate, and Americans are facing new challenges in deciding how the right to bear arms affects the nation’s safety. Throughout this discourse, the media plays a substantial role in reporting mass shootings and shaping the way Americans consume this information. The media, generally defined here as traditional newspapers and news networks, contributes to the national dialogue through discussions of gun control, mental health, and religious extremism in the wake of mass shootings. These discussions differ according to the perpetrators and circumstances of the crime, but all the same reflect national attitudes toward these issues, with significant consequences for policymakers.

Mass Shootings and their Discussion

The media has played a substantive role in shaping public opinion regarding debates on gun violence and gun control. News outlets disseminate the information immediately, with the help of social media, and these outlets choose how to present the facts and frame the discussion. Coverage and conversation about gun control spike after mass shootings, and in recent years the “issue attention cycle”—the media’s attention span for a particular story—has gotten longer for mass shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre. Social media has also come to play an essential role in shaping the debate, regardless of its accuracy. In a four-month survey of Twitter following Sandy Hook, Pew Research found that pro-gun control sentiment is highest immediately following shootings and legislative efforts, suggesting a correlation between heightened coverage (especially heightened emotional coverage) and gun control sentiments.  Furthermore, Pew found that discussion of gun laws dominated newspaper opinion pages and editorials following the Sandy Hook massacre, outstripping coverage of the tragedy itself.

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Gun control is not the only issue at play when it comes to covering mass shootings. Mental health is an especially prominent topic, as many people blame mental illness for gun violence. The assumption that most mass shooters are mentally ill is rhetorically supported by media coverage, and repeated by anti-gun control proponents, but it is also demonstrably false. Only about 3 to 5% of all US crimes are committed by individuals diagnosed with a mental illness, and fewer than 5% of all gun-related killings between 2001 and 2010 were committed by individuals with diagnosed mental illnesses. Nonetheless, a 2015 study found that 63% of Americans blame untreated mental health problems for mass shootings, versus 23% pointing to gun control laws. When it comes to linking illness and violence, mass shootings are particularly susceptible to distortions within media coverage. Contentious studies associating mental disorders with violence are often cited as fact, overstating the propensity for mentally ill individuals to commit violent acts, and promoting these ideas to the American public. Furthermore, news coverage often fails to explain the nuances of mental illness, presenting mild and severe illnesses in a binary framework, through which the propensity for violence escalates immediately with supposed severity. News outlets also give voice to the violent loner narrative, and even psychiatric journals are more likely to report on aggression by mentally ill individuals rather than victimhood. This directly contradicts the statistical likelihood of a mentally ill individual to be a victim of crime; for example, individuals with schizophrenia are 65 to 130% more likely to be victimized than the general public. The media tends to distort the characteristics of shooters to conform to the “white male loner” narrative, even though this rhetorical descriptor is a relatively new and often baseless phenomenon. Headlines such as “School Advisor: Gunman Loner Who Felt No Pain” and speculation on shooters’ mental health background are common in these cases.

In addition to mental health, mass shootings can bring about enhanced discussions of Islam and terrorism. These discussions take place in a broader context of anti-Islamic sentiment, which has been brought to greater scrutiny, given recent circumstances such as the rise of ISIS and Donald Trump’s inflammatory executive order banning immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. A 2016 Pew Research poll shows that half of Americans believe that at least some Muslims are anti-American, and the nation is similarly split on whether or not Islam encourages violence more than other religions. Moreover, Republicans are over two times more likely than Democrats to believe that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, with 68% of Republicans supporting this belief versus 30% of Democrats. In a survey of Western media coverage of Islam, the Georgetown Bridge Initiative discovered that an overwhelming majority of stories concerning Islam had a negative tone, and found anti-Muslim coverage in recent years to be worse than reporting after 9/11. The same study found Christianity, Judaism, and other religions to be treated as religious protagonists, receiving considerably more positive coverage when compared to stories about Islam.

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In terms of mass shooting coverage, despite the fact that only three mass shootings since 2014 have been committed in the name of radical Islam, the media disproportionately emphasizes the role of religion and race when covering Muslim shooters. These factors are rarely discussed when white shooters commit similar crimes; instead, the lone and mentally ill narrative is often promoted. For example, the Isla Vista shooter who killed six people near UC Santa Barbara’s campus, was described by the New York Times as a boy with “deep and puzzling psychological problems”. The same outlet called the Charleston church shooter who killed nine people with racist intent, a “silent young man with no [prior] record of violence”. In contrast, the New York Times headlines its description of the Orlando shooter “Always Agitated. Always Mad.” The article goes on to discuss his “occasional flashes of interest in radical Islam”, but never speculates about mental illness. This instance, repeated often in cases of Muslim shooters, demonstrates the media’s tendency to portray white shooters as troubled young men acting alone, while treating Muslim shooters as related to a collective movement.

Furthermore, news stories tend to immediately link shootings carried out by Muslims to terrorism, even though 94% of all terrorist attacks are carried out by non-Muslim people. For example, news outlets like the International Business Times, CNN, Fox News, and more speculated about the Washington mall shooter, who had no proven relation to terrorist groups, having links to ISIS before the FBI even had a chance to investigate his Turkish background. In order to combat these accusatory speculations and assuage public fears, American Muslims are often faced with societal pressure to publically condemn acts committed by Muslim individuals, an expectation never placed on white men when their peers commit the same crimes. After the San Bernardino shootings, the Council on American-Islamic Relations gathered with Los Angeles Muslim leaders to release a statement within hours, demonstrating how concerned the community already is with current anti-Mulsim sentiments. The argument here is not that these shootings are never related to extremism; the Orlando shooter did pledge allegiance to ISIS before killing forty-nine people, and at least two other mass shootings have been linked to radical Islam in recent years. The point is that linking one man to an entire group, a group who is statistically unlikely to support his extremism, is irresponsible, and is a tactic that is perpetuated by news outlets in the event of a mass shooting carried out by a Muslim individual.

Overall, the media can shape the debate and tone surrounding topics like gun control, mental illness, and religious extremism in the wake of a mass shooting. Social research demonstrates that Americans hold unbalanced views in regard to these topics, especially in terms of the relationship between mental illness or Islam and violence. News outlets perpetuate these views, overstating the significance of mental illness in mass shooting cases, and framing the discussion differently for white shooters and non-white Muslim shooters.

Impacts of the National Discourse

A common theme follows mass shootings and high-profile gun-related incidents: little to nothing changes. We seem stuck in a cycle of mass shooting, increased media coverage and debate, returning to apathy, another mass shooting, and so on. Advocates on both sides of the debate turn to Congress, whose bills often stall out. After the Orlando massacre, Congress rejected several measures to curb gun accessibility, such as expanded background checks and limitations for individuals on terrorist watch lists. However, an NPR report tracing the relationship between mass shootings and gun control points out that when legislative changes do occur after a shooting, they tend to pass at the state level. Mass shootings increase the number of legislative proposals, the nature of which depends on the state’s party lines. Following killings in South Carolina and Tennessee, Republican legislatures actually expanded access to firearms, while the California legislature passed restrictive measures after the San Bernardino murders.

Similarly, mental health legislation receives greater attention in the wake of mass shootings. After the Sandy Hook killings, many Republicans shifted the focus from gun control to mental health, arguing that mass shootings signal a mental health crisis rather than a gun crisis. However, it took years and hundreds of mass shootings for Congress to pass the Helping Families in Crisis Act (also known as the Murphy Bill), calling for comprehensive mental health care reform. Although helpful to individuals with mental illnesses, this legislation does not address the real causes of mass shootings, as statistical analysis does not support the correlation between mental illness and shootings.

In terms of reactions to Islam after mass shooting coverage, few concrete pieces of legislation are actually pursued. Donald Trump has proposed creating a registry of Muslims, although this is not directly linked to shootings, but rather the general anti-Muslim sentiment present in the United States. However, many Muslim Americans fear for their personal safety after mass shootings occur in relation to other Muslim Americans. In interviews with Reuters after the San Bernardino shootings, Muslims expressed fears related to political demonization, retaliation from Trump supporters, and enhanced bigotry. These fears are not unfounded; the FBI has found that anti-Muslim assaults have reached 9/11 levels, with 91 assaults reported in 2015 (compared to 93 in 2001).

The Way Forward

In all likelihood, the United States will experience many more mass shootings, and will lose thousands of citizens to gun violence in the coming years. If the media continues to cover these tragedies through distorted frameworks, it runs the risk of perpetuating false information and giving each side of the gun control debate inaccurate claims to back their policy positions. As we have seen, the gun control debate is at its most salient following high-profile mass shootings, making these instances vital opportunities for media outlets to shape the discourse. News sources often cite misinformation and focus on a few small instances to inform the whole. Mentally ill individuals have been involved in several high profile shootings, but for the most part mass shootings are not conducted by the crazed, lone gunman the media tends to favor. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of shootings are not committed in relation to Islam or extremism, despite the media’s overemphasis on this factor in instances when the shooter has a Muslim background.  These distorted debates foster misinformed public opinion, and many Americans link mental illness and Islam to violence despite the overwhelmingly contradictory statistics. Furthermore, national debate can have an important impact on legislative efforts, and can shape the actions of political leaders.

Perhaps the media is not important enough, or influential enough, to directly shape individuals’ perception of these matters. Forming a direct correlation would require further study. However, it can be argued that news outlets play a significant role in disseminating information, and the inaccurate views perpetuated by the media’s emphasis on mental illness and Islam in relation to mass shootings are reflected in American attitudes toward these issues. Moving forward, members of the media must report all the facts, and give up narratives, if they are to change the framework through which people understand mass shootings.


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