Covering suicide-mass shootings

I’m writing this post with great sadness this morning, in the wake of yet another suicide/mass shooting, this time very close to my geographic home. Along with my collaborator, Dr. Bryce Peake, I just finished an article about coverage of mass shootings, titled “Coverage That Kills.” While the article will appear in Catherine Squires’ Gender and Guns: Dangerous Discourses in the Age of Violence (forthcoming Peter Lang, 2016), I wanted to share some of our conclusions, because the evidence strongly suggests that the way journalists cover these crimes can increase the possibility that others will seek to emulate such violent acts.

In our article, we argue that journalists covering suicide-mass shootings should follow CDC suicide coverage guidelines when covering them. Research has demonstrated that irresponsible media reporting of suicides increases suicide rates. In the 1970s, sociologist David Phillips described this as the “Werther effect,” in reference to the copycat suicides that followed in the wake of publication of Goethe’s tragedy, The Sorrows of Young Werther. More recent research has described this as a suicide “spike” that results from coverage of suicide, or the spreading of a “suicide contagion.” The CDC describes contagion as “a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide.”

Not only does the Werther effect predict that more people will commit suicide in the wake of publicity of a suicide, it has also been demonstrated that more people will commit suicide using the same method as the original crime.

Research on suicide contagion further indicates that it is not simply publicity per se that causes increases in suicides, but certain kinds of publicity. According to the CDC, journalists should avoid narratives that provide the following:

  1. simplistic explanations for suicide
  2. repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide
  3. sensational coverage of suicide
  4. “how-to” descriptions of suicide
  5. presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
  6. glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide. (1994, 4-5).

In the wake of a series of teen suicides in the 1980s, many US news organizations adopted standards endorsed by the CDC for covering suicides.

Given the fact that so many of the perpetrators of suicide-mass shootings leave posthumous press kits and clearly want to make sure that their names are part of the annals of violent acts, it is high time that we all follow the example of the Oregon sheriff who refused to name the shooter. Journalists should also avoid coverage that might be interpreted as aggrandizing or celebrating these acts (e.g. coverage that “keeps score,” like identifying an event as “the deadliest”).

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