‘Focus your attention on the victims and their families’

Should the media be restricted in their reporting of mass shootings? Ella Rhodes investigates.

Thursday’s school shooting in Umpqua Community College Orgeon was just the latest of almost 300 mass gun attacks in the US this year alone. President Obama could barely contain his emotion and frustration at the regularity of these attacks, saying ‘our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It does nothing to prevent this carnage being inflicted some place in America, next week or a couple of months from now’. Noting that the US has spent trillions of dollars and passed laws to protect people from terrorism, Obama said ‘yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how to reduce potential gun deaths. How can that be?’

Yet there are others with a responsibility to reduce the risk of further shootings: the media. Back in 2009, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz called on the media to avoid: showing sirens blaring in their reports, using photographs of the killer, having rolling 24 hour coverage of the event, and leading with the body count. Dietz warned that these were all factors in creating ‘anti heroes’ and prompting copycat, one-upmanship: ‘Every time we have intense saturation of coverage of a mass murder we expect to see one or two more within a week.’ The coverage of the Virginia TV journalists shot dead earlier this year during a live report suggested Dietz’s advice had not been heeded.

However, following the Umpqua killings, the Sherriff of Douglas County, John Hanlin, refused to name the shooter in an official statement released on Facebook, and implored news outlets to do the same. He said: ‘Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter. I will not give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice. Media will get the name confirmed in time... but you will never hear us use it. We would encourage media and the community to avoid using it, repeating it, or engaging in any glorification and sensationalization of him. He in no way deserves it. Focus your attention on the victims and their families and helping them to recover.’

However, unsurprisingly, once the killer’s name was released to the press, hugely in-depth investigations of his background were released. His internet activity, his history and interviews with his distraught father saturated the news while a photograph of the shooter holding a rifle accompanied each separate report.

Research supports the suggestion that such coverage has a deadly impact. Work led by Sherry Towers (Arizona State University) and published in PLOS One earlier this year found that there is a ‘temporary increase in probability’ following mass killings involving firearms, lasting on average for 13 days and leading to at least 0.30 new incidents. Shockingly the authors outline that 87 per cent of all children (aged 0 to 14) killed by firearms are children living in the US, despite the fact only 5 per cent of the world’s children live in the country.

Psychologist Pam Ramsden (University of Bradford), an expert in vicarious trauma, said that in the wake of school shootings a certain percentage of the public – particularly parents – could be prone to experiencing some symptoms of trauma after viewing coverage on the news. She said: ‘We know that when children are involved the amount of trauma is higher - especially if they have school aged children, because they can visualize their own children in danger at what is suppose to be a safe environment. Trauma is more likely when normal people are doing normal things - for example we all are not shocked when a soldier is killed during active duty, because we have an expectation that this will happen. We don't have the same expectations in what we would consider "safety zones".’

Some of the media images following the Virginia shootings, showing the precise moment the victims realised they were going to die, seemed particularly graphic. Rumsden said: ‘these pictures are traumatising as the human brain is specifically designed to catalogue visual memories… we store these and each picture we see further builds on these traumatising images. I believe it is enough to show that a terrible accident occurred, or a natural disaster, we don't need to see floating bodies - whether they are human or animals. These graphic violent images can be damaging and I believe that the media, in an effort to increase shock value, portrays the very worst of the images that they can.’

As for helping schools to reduce their vulnerability to deadly shooting incidents, research by Traci Wilke and Mark Fraser from 2009 identified six strategies:

1. Strengthening pupils’ attachment to their school (in nearly all prior school shootings the killers have lacked this attachment);

2. Reducing social aggression, for example through conflict resolution programmes;

3. Breaking down codes of silence, in which there is an implicit agreement among pupils not to share information with teachers and parents;

4. Establishing resources for troubled and rejected students (the Safe School Initiative found that 71 per cent of attackers had experienced bullying and harassment);

5. Increasing basic security measures; and

6. Bolstering communication within the school (e.g. by introducing a mass text message alert system) and between school and community agencies, allowing, for example, the rapid review of pupils whose essays and compositions may betray signs of mental distress.

‘If implemented successfully, programs based on these six strategies are likely to reduce social stratification, increase school bonding, and provide early intervention to ostracized and angry students who, if exposed to other risk factors, may have a higher likelihood of violence,’ the authors wrote.

But to turn the spotlight back on the media, is it time for outlets to take responsibility for reducing glorification and sensationalisation? There are media guidelines around the reporting of suicide so why not homicide? Surely a first step would be to follow Sherriff Hanlin’s advice: to not name the killer, ditch his photo and focus instead on the victims and their families.

The more alien we become, the more human we remain

Jon Sutton reports from the Science Museum's 'Cosmonauts' exhibition.

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Aiming to forget – human frailty or strength?

Ella Rhodes reports from a British Academy / British Psychological Society lecture from Dr Michael Anderson (University of Cambridge).

'I would like to abolish silo working'

'One on One' with Professor Peter Fonagy, winner of the prestigious British Academy Wiley Prize in Psychology.

Out of this world

A special feature on aliens and space travel, including an interview with Douglas Vakoch, clinical psychologist and Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Our Research Digest podcast

Dating and attraction, and willpower, in our new audio offering.

October 2015

This month's issue, archive, digital editions and more: Your Psychologist, your way...