Saturday, October 3, 2015

Changing Media Reporting Practices to Reduce Mass Shootings in the U.S

The Papageno Effect and Spree Murder-Suicide

As news with details about yesterday’s shooting in Oregon emerge, today's shooting in Orlando there will be much speculation regarding the shooter’s motivation and what should be done to prevent future incidents. As I have been thinking and writing a about this issue in the past year, I’m becoming more convinced that the apparent motivations of the shooters may not matter as much as most people may think, and the main solutions that are usually proposed (namely gun control and improved mental health) may be unfeasible, or will not work as desired. That is not to say that nothing can be done.

Already there are reports about possible religious motive  and political figures on one side of the political spectrum are calling for restrictions to firearms while others say that “it sounds like another mental health problem.”  These two positions are technically correct, and yet neither of them may present a solution to the current problem. First of all: Yes, the available evidence convincingly shows that restrictions to means like guns reduce suicide and gun related death rates, while increased access to mental health resources has similar effects. However, in our current political climate, legislation that will lead to restrictions to guns access is unlikely to pass.  Some of the most horrible mass shootings by civilians have already occurred.  Kindergartners have been killed, movie-goers ambushed, and yet, legislation to restrict guns in these States has stalled or resulted in successful recall votes of legislators who support them. In fact, even research on the effect of guns on mass violence has been blocked.

Similarly, mental health funding has stalled or decreased in many states even in the face of increasing mass shootings. Of note, while increased access to improved mental health resources may aid the most severely mentally ill individuals, they are not at higher risk to commit these type of mass shootings. While some of these shooters, but definitely not the majority, have had some contact with mental health services, they were not severely mentally ill. Indeed, that is one of the biggest challenges in these cases. These men have carried themselves with a veneer of normalcy and were well adapted or even privileged, making their detection nearly impossible by health services and law enforcement. In fact, we can cite that currently, the NSA and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in one of the most detailed, technologically advanced, and all-encompassing security surveillance efforts in history. And yet, despite these efforts, they have been unable to prevent these tragedies even when many of these shooters have a heavy online presence in which they detail their frustrations, desires, ideology and even their plans.

To be fair, I’m not pointing the inability of these agencies to prevent these shootings as an indictment of their efforts. Rather I mention it to highlight the incredibly difficult task of predicting violent human behavior even with very intrusive resources, and to make a call to find creative solutions that are not constrained by political and practical difficulties. In short, not relying on the usual responses to mass shootings: Restricting guns which is a political non-starter, and/or massively increasing mental health screenings and/or law enforcement surveillance which is unrealistic and would probably miss their target anyway.

Instead, one possible way to alleviate this problem (not a solution because it is unlikely to solve it altogether), is a public health approach that has shown promise in suicide interventions in Europe. In the early 1980s, there were a series of sensationally publicized suicides of persons who jumped onto the subway in Vienna. As a response, the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention made an appeal for the media to change the quantity and quality of reporting of these suicides. The association guidelines included tips such as not including pictures of grieving relatives, not putting the word "suicide" on the headline, and including numbers for helplines in the articles. Fortunately, a lot of the Austrian media heeded the suggestions, and as they started publicizing stories of people who had found alternatives to suicide, the rates went down. More recent research suggests that types of reporting on suicides were differentially linked to suicide rates. Specifically, articles that focused on individuals who adopted coping strategies to deal with suicidal crises were linked to lower suicide rates, while articles in which experts were interviewed and there was a focus on epidemiological facts was associated with increases in suicide.  The researchers dubbed the increase and decreases in suicide linked to type of reporting the Werther and Papageno effects respectively, and they may be helpful in stemming the current spree-shooting-suicide crisis in the U.S.

There is already some evidence that the Papageno effect may have been helpful in decreasing suicides in the U.S. After Kurt Cobain’s suicide, there was a concerted effort by media outlets and notably MTV to not glamourize his suicide and give helpline numbers. As a result, the usual contagion effect associated with celebrity suicides was neutralized and reversed in Seattle. In the case of mass-shooters, if we go one extra step, and conceive them as individuals who are in psychological distress, just like any other suicidal person, we could harness the Papageno effect to reduce their incidence.  Currently, the media coverage of mass-shootings are focused on sensationalizing the shooting. The aftermath of shootings are filled with footage of grieving victims, and police responding with sirens blaring. There are loud, dramatic condemnations of the shooter, and close ups of their social media photos often showing them defiantly staring at the camera, while holding a weapon. Based on the evidence about the Werther effect cited above, this is perhaps the worst way to report these events. There is very little emphasis on help resources for persons who may be experiencing the same struggles and may be watching. There are no hopeful stories about people who have felt alienated from society (e.g., ex-skinheads or gang members who renounce their affiliation) but have overcome it to become functioning members of society.

Changing the current reporting practices of these events is particularly important because there is good evidence to suggest that men who engage in mass shootings have followed and idealized previous mass shootings. On their diaries many talk about “outdoing” previous shooters, and/or fantasize about the coverage and “respect” they will receive in the aftermath. This is why I mean that the apparent motive of the shooter may not be as relevant. Whether the shooter espouses frustration about lack of sexual experience and misogyny (e.g., Rodgers, Soldini), xenophobia or racism (e.g., Brevik, Roof), or general misanthropy (Harris, Klebold), these motives are not a satisfactory explanation for their behavior. Many people have those attitudes and yet, they do not engage in murder-suicide.

The men who engage in mass shootings followed by suicide have arrived at a point in which they feel murder-suicide is the only way to gain the notoriety they crave, and escape the psychological pain they are in. With the current shooting in Oregon, there is already evidence that the shooter wrote online about Vester Flanigan (who recently shot a reporter and cameraman on live TV before killing himself ) in admiring tones, and remarked about the infamy he gained. If we modify the content of reports on mass shootings following guidelines already provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and supplement the reports with information about mental resources that potential future shooters (who, to be sure, are in genuine psychological distress) can access, and importantly do not glorify these events, we may be able to make meaningful reductions in the incidence and lethality of these events.

These changes would require collaboration from media outlets and may be interpreted by some people as an affront to the first amendment to spare the second.  These are valid points but what I and others are proposing is not to stop reporting and informing the public. Rather what is being proposed is a slight change on how the same information is conveyed, and what is emphasized. Incidentally, these changes are not without precedent in the U.S.  Media blackouts and moratoria are requested and honored in a routine basis when reporting deaths of service men and women, and in matters of national security. Mass murder-suicide is a national security issue. More Americans have been killed since 2001 by gun violence than by terrorism. If this does not merit a similar treatment in the media, not just out of respect for the victims and their families, but because it might save lives, then what will?

We all grieve these tragedies in different ways. In my case, it has reinforced my desire to use the tools of our science to help ameliorate them.  But the problem is too big for one person, or two, or whole laboratories of social scientists. Enacting these changes in reporting requires citizen engagement to solicit media outlets to make them (e.g., through petition drives in social media, making calls to stations after these events to follow the AFSPs recommendations, and even potential boycotts of programming). They also require us to enlist the help of legislators who can foster a lawful environment in which reporting is done in the best interest of public health.  We do not allow nudity or curse words in broadcasts, surely we can muster the will to encourage media outlets to report something as serious as murder-suicide with the gravitas is deserves and not as a fictional police-drama with melodramatic music and camera angles.

From a research perspective, there is much work to be done too. Many a dissertation could be written about whether sensationalistic coverage of mass shootings are related geographically to their subsequent incidence. Or, from a more localized, clinical perspective, whether there is increased suicide/homicide ideation among persons with highly antagonistic views of the world after viewing these reports. In addition, we know precious little on the kind of interventions that may best work for persons who have these tendencies and what might stop them if they seek help.  The needs are great, but so is our resourcefulness and desire to help and the faster we do , the more lives we may save.


  1. Excellent post! I shared this on Facebook, and I hope it goes viral so that change in media reporting can occur.

  2. Thanks Allison, I appreciate it! I hope these ideas gain traction, and social media is a good way to spread them. Best,