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Mass Shootings and Media Literacy

July 2, 2019

This is part three of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.

Mass shootings have captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem. The topic of mass shootings is fraught, not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues. 

The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’: A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “‘Why Isn’t the Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”). 

In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from common myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem. 

In Part 1 of this series, I tackled the nature and frequency of mass shootings; in Part 2, I examined the demographics of mass shooters. Here I conclude with an overview and examination of how we can apply media literacy and critical thinking to mass shooting statistics.  

Racial Biases in Mass Shooting Coverage

We can begin by noting a racial disparity in the amount of attention that mass shootings get, especially on social media. As described in Part 2, many or most victims of mass shootings are African American, yet the shootings that tend to receive the greatest coverage involve white victims—and usually a white perpetrator (statistically most killers and their victims are of the same race). 

This disparity is the result of several factors. The first is that there is not a single type of “mass shooting” but instead three types (familicides, felony, and public mass killings), each with their own distinct patterns (see Part 2). Because of sensationalist and alarmist news media coverage, only the rarest type, the public mass shooting, is often thought of by the public as a “mass shooting.” There are of course several reasons for this, including the relatively high body count; twenty people killed in a single shooting will generate far more media coverage than four people dead. 

As described in Part 1, this is because of what social psychologist John Ruscio calls “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. The more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: Our minds easily remember vivid events such as horrific school shootings and mass murders. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: Our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. 

The bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are. But such shootings are relatively rare, while far more common “ordinary” (e.g., family and felony) mass murders largely pass under the radar. Omar Mateen killing forty-nine people in a nightclub made international news for months, but ten other murderers in ten different cities (each killing four or five people in domestic incidents or drive-by shootings) over the course of a month won’t make national news.  

Compounding this bias, mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this, see my book Media Mythmakers). Such shootings also tend to be among the most notable and dramatic, such as the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, Thousand Oaks nightclub shooter Ian Long, and others. This perception is intentionally amplified by memes attempting to debunk a real or perceived media and social bias that systematically downplays shootings by white males and highlights shootings by minorities. 

But if we care about people of color and what violence is doing to our communities, we need to pay attention to their deaths too. Unfortunately there seems to be a cultural blindness; perhaps it makes white people uncomfortable to discuss mass shootings that overwhelmingly victimize black people. The bulk of violent crime is not black on white or white on black but instead white on white and black on black—the opposite of what racists often suggest. 

Among the recent examples of public mass shootings with victims of color whose murders got far less media coverage than those of white killers:

  • At a mass shooting at a Maryland Rite Aid warehouse on September 20, 2018, six people were attacked by coworker Snochia Moseley, three of them killed. Most of the victims were minorities and foreigners, including people from Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and Nigeria. 
  • Serial shooter Aaron Saucedo killed nine people and wounded three others in mass shootings in Phoenix, Arizona, in July and August 2016; his victims were mostly people of color. 

White vs. Black, Crazy vs. Terrorist?


In recent years a common criticism of the news media is that Caucasian mass shooters are described (by journalists, police, and others) as mentally ill (implying perhaps sympathy or an excuse, though it’s not clear that such a designation absolves any responsibility in the public’s mind) while people of color are deemed to be terrorists

One specific meme, adapted from a Family Guy episode, depicts with dark humor a skin color guide—held, notably, by a white hand—describing how to determine whether a given suspect should be considered either “mentally disturbed” or, alternately, a “terrorist.” This binary distinction implies that it refers specifically to high-profile violent acts such as mass shootings or bombings. (Of course the meme contains a false-choice fallacy; mass shooters may be widely described as neither or both. This is perhaps taking the meme too literally, though it presumably accurately reflects a widespread belief about an important social truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be widely shared.)

Mental Health Tweet

 

Elsewhere I explore the truths and myths behind why a given act may be designated as terrorism; I note that in many cases white attackers are indeed labeled terrorists by journalists, police, and others. It’s also true that white mass shooters are often described as mentally ill.

But how accurate is this specific disparity? Are white mass shooters typically described as mentally ill while black ones are instead typically “terrorists”? Despite gaining widespread currency on social media, it seems no one has researched this specific question, though I endeavored to quantify the issue. 

In 2013, Diamond Sharp, a writer for the African American publication The Root, assembled a list of “Rare Gunmen: Black Mass Shooters.” She listed the following seven black mass shooters. 

1) Colin Ferguson attacked commuters on a Long Island train in 1993, killing six people and injuring nineteen others with a 9 mm handgun. Not only was he widely described in news reports as mentally ill, but his lawyers claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity. 

2) Omar Thornton shot and killed eight former coworkers at a Connecticut distribution center before turning a gun on himself in 2010; it was the deadliest workplace mass shooting in Connecticut history. A forensic psychologist commenting on the shooting stated that such attacks occur “because of longstanding psychological or characterological disorders.” 

3) Mass shooter Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers in Parkland, Washington, in 2009. He had a long history of violence, including sexual assault on a child and burglary. He was described in news reports as mentally ill, at one point telling psychologists that he suffered from hallucinations, including “people drinking blood and people eating babies, and lawless on the streets, like people were cannibals.” 

4) Aurora, Colorado, mass shooter Nathan Dunlap shot five employees at a restaurant, killing one of them, in December 1993. Dunlap was reported in the news media as having suffered from mental illness and was diagnosed at age fourteen with a mood disorder. Dunlap was sentenced to death in 1996 and in his appeal complained that his lawyer had not fully emphasized his mental illness. 

5) and 6) John Allen Muhammad, perhaps America’s best-known mass shooter, was better known as the Beltway Sniper. Along with accomplice John Lee Malvo, Muhammad killed ten people over the course of three weeks in 2002. Because of the terror that the killings caused, he was charged with terrorism. He was also publically described by his attorneys and the news media as mentally ill, though he was ruled competent enough to stand trial in March 2006. As reported in the Chicago Tribune (December 12, 2003) and elsewhere, psychiatrists testified that Malvo was also mentally ill and not guilty by reason of insanity.

7) The final black mass shooter on The Root’s list is Christopher Dorner, a Los Angeles police officer who attacked seven people, killing four and wounding three others in February 2013. Though he died before he could stand trial, Dorner left an extensive rambling manifesto complaining about racism, politics, and his perceived scapegoating when he reported another officer’s misconduct toward a mentally ill man. He quotes Mia Farrow and D.H. Lawrence; praises a long list of celebrities including Chris Matthews, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley, and others (Charlie Sheen is “effin awesome”); he lists “THE MOST beautiful women on this planet, period” (including Jennifer Beals, Natalie Portman, Kelly Clarkson, Margaret Cho, and Queen Latifah); gives musical shout-outs (Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Metallica, etc.); and so on. Recognizing that his mass murder spree would likely end in his death, he also lamented the fact that he would not live to see The Hangover 3

He also addresses those he plans to kill and explains his motives: 

Terminating officers because they expose a culture of lying, racism (from the academy), and excessive use of force will immediately change. The blue line will forever be severed and a cultural change will be implanted. You have awoken a sleeping giant. I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale compasses to true north …. I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead. 

Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and a February 9 Associated Press news article describing Dorner as “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.” In fact the characterization of Dorner as mentally ill was so prominent that some even complained about it; one writer, Thandisizwe Chimurenga in the L.A. Watts Times (February 21, 2013), complained that “The Media Tried to Assassinate Chris Dorner [with descriptions] of ‘Mental Illness.’” 

Of course white mass shooters are also widely described as being mentally ill, which is hardly surprising considering that public mass murder is an inherently abhorrent and irrational act, and anyone—regardless of race—who commits it is immediately and understandably suspected of not being in his right mind. We can easily conceive of an escalating fight over a specific beef resulting in a single death, but there is no valid reason or justification to kill multiple innocent people. 

It’s notable that 100 percent of the African American mass shooters profiled in The Root article were publicly described in mainstream news media—often by police officials, family members, and sometimes even the shooters themselves—as being mentally ill. I, of course, don’t suggest that the list is representative or comprehensive; it only includes shooters as of 2013 (though given the rarity of black public mass shooters overall, it’s unlikely that there are a significant number of exceptions), but it seems a reasonable representative sampling of the public mass shooter demographic. 

A review of more recent examples reflects the same pattern. Aaron Alexis, a mass shooter who killed twelve people and wounded three others at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, was widely reported to have suffered from mental illness, including schizophrenia and hearing voices. Radee Labeeb Prince, who killed three people and injured three others in Aberdeen, Maryland, in 2017, was widely described in the news media as being mentally unstable. His half-sister was quoted describing him as angry, paranoid, and “a psychopath” who should have been committed to a mental health facility. DeWayne Craddock, a Virginia Beach man who killed twelve people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in June 2019, was described in The New York Times as having recently mentally “snapped.” 

An African American woman, Shana Decree, and her daughter Dominique killed five family members in February 2019; news media, including USA Today, referenced the elder Decree’s mental health issues, including hearing voices urging suicide. Gary Martin walked into a warehouse in Aurora, Illinois, in February 2019, opening fire on five coworkers and wounding another five police officers. He died in the shootout; the Chicago Tribune, among other news media, reported his history of mental illness. Mass shooter Snochia Moseley, mentioned earlier, was widely reported in news media, including the Baltimore Sun, to have been diagnosed with mental illness in 2016. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but even a cursory review demonstrates that African Americans and other minority mass shooters are indeed often described in the news media as having mental illness issues, viral memes to the contrary notwithstanding. 

This does not, of course, suggest that news coverage is race-blind. As I noted earlier, many studies have found, for example, that journalists are more likely to describe a white mass shooter as coming from a good environment (evoking a bogus and biased “What went wrong?” narrative) while describing African American ones as being inherently more dangerous and “bad.” My argument here is specifically that when it comes to labeling mass shooters as either terrorists or suffering from mental illness, despite popular belief there’s little clear difference between the races. 

The simple fact is that most mass shooters, regardless of race, are described as mentally ill (assuming of course they are and sometimes even if they’re not). Even if further research found that white shooters are more often described as having a history of mental problems than minorities, it would hardly be surprising. Whites are more likely than blacks to get quality healthcare, including mental health care and screenings, which in turn makes whites more likely to have been diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses. In other words, it’s not that mental illness is necessarily overrepresented in white shooters (or media coverage of them) but instead that whites are more likely than blacks to have benefitted from the privilege of a healthcare system that would have caught or treated the problems. Racial bias can be discerned in the system—just not in some ways many people assume.

Mental Health and Mass Shooters

Mental illness is heavily stigmatized and not seen as a moral absolution; the widely publicized mental health problems of mass murderers such as Stephen Paddock did not elicit sympathy from the victims or anyone else. The idea that police authorities or journalists selectively disclose or emphasize the mental illness history of whites to make them sympathetic or somehow excuse their crimes has no clear basis in fact. 

The focus on mental illness as an important factor in mass shootings is in many ways a distraction from the deeper issues. As with other mass shooter demographics (see Part 2), there is little insight to be gained by focusing on the mental health history of mass shooters. There are several reasons for this, perhaps most prominently that most mass shooters across all categories do not have a prior history of mental health treatment. Contrary to popular perception, most mass shootings have a reasonably clear motive; in the two most common categories described by Fridel (see Part 2), family and felony mass murders, are rooted in personal grievances (divorce, custody battles, etc.) and criminal activity (drive-by shootings, drug deals, etc.). 

Fridel table

For felony mass murders, just under 2 percent of the offenders had such a history; for family mass murders the number rises to 16 percent, and about a third of public mass murderers had received mental health treatment. This means, of course, that two-thirds of them did not. One study (see Vossekuil et al. 2002 in Further Reading at end of article) found that only a third of mass shooters ever received a mental health evaluation, and 17 percent had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. The researchers also found that most mass shooters had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior. 

Again we see how focusing on the exceptional anecdote misleads us. Several mass and school shooters had suspected or diagnosed mental deficiencies. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer, was said to have had Asperger’s syndrome, as did Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine at an Oregon community college in 2016.

The fact is that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Social justice advocates may feel like they’re doing good by shining a light on the presumed disparate social diagnoses of the roots of violence, but focusing on the role mental illness (whether alone or in contrast to terrorism) plays in mass shootings only further stigmatizes a vulnerable and marginalized group. 

Going Postal (Or Not): Fabricating ‘Trends’ from Statistical Noise

Not long ago the focus was less on mental health than career choice—specifically working at the Post Office. As we have seen, the news media play an important role in shaping the public’s perceptions, especially of risk. One example is the phrase “going postal,” which began as a dark humor slang phrase and was soon popularized by prominent newspapers in 1993, including the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Though there have only been about a dozen cases of Postal Service workers killing themselves, coworkers, or others over the years, the phrase came to represent any workplace killing. 

It’s important to keep the numbers in perspective; at any given time the United States Postal Service employs over a half million people full time, including clerks, drivers, delivery personnel, and managers. In addition there are part-time workers, contractors, and others hired during the holidays. The list of current and former post office employees reaches into the millions, and some tiny percentage of those will be involved in homicides simply by random chance. 

A 2000 “Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace” examined the relative risk of working at the post office and found that its employees were in fact one-third less likely to be killed at work than those in other jobs. In fact, “Of the 15 instances of post office homicide between 1986 and 1989, only four were judged to be purely work-related. Fourteen of the killers had problems such as substance abuse, mental illness, a violent past, or a criminal record.” The commission’s chairman, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., noted in the report that “‘Going postal’ is a myth, a bad rap. Postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass, or verbally abuse their coworkers than employees in the national workforce.” 

Curiously, the once-common phrase “going postal” has largely faded from public parlance. It’s almost as if the spate of shootings at post offices and among postal workers was an anomaly, a statistical quirk instead of a genuine trend. The criminologists and statisticians were right all along, while the journalists who blithely cobbled anecdotes together onto the next “terrifying trend” were wrong. At the time the threat of a postal worker “going postal” was taken very seriously and was not recognized as statistical noise. It was only with time and closer analysis that the true nature of this threat was revealed.  

Mass Shooters and the Mass Media 

One of the most influential—yet least-discussed—commonalities among public mass shooters is the role that the media play. Perhaps the most reliable predictor of future mass shootings is … media coverage of past mass shootings. Researchers have found that mass shootings (as well as the threat of mass shootings) are strongly correlated with earlier recent mass shootings—typically within two weeks. Thus part of the solution, ironically, is restraint in covering and promoting the stories on social media. In recent years, police and politicians have begun to recognize this effect and take steps toward trying to stem the influence of mass shooters. 

In June 2019, after DeWayne Craddock killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach, the police chief refused to repeat the shooter’s name. “We’re going to mention his name once, and then he will be forever referred to as ‘the suspect,’” Chief James Cervera said at a press conference. Though there is no national policy on denying shooters the fame they crave (at least in some small measure), other law enforcement officials have done the same, as did New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following a horrific mass shooting at mosques in the capital of Christchurch in March 2019. 

As The New York Times reported:

Explicit evidence of “fame seeking” exists for nearly half of the deadliest mass shootings since 2010, according to Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, who presented his data at a National Science Foundation workshop in April. His research found that 90 percent of high-fatality shootings have some circumstantial evidence of a desire for attention. “The evidence supporting these types of strategies is stronger than ever before because we have more cases and more data,” Dr. Lankford said. “And law enforcement is also increasingly desperate to do something that would make a difference.” 

In the end, mass shootings will continue. Perhaps one day, through a blend of legislation, media restraint by journalists (who refuse to name killers and sensationalize their crimes) and social media users (who refuse to create and perpetuate agenda-drive myths and misinformation about mass shootings), or some other measure, they will decrease. But until then the best antidote to the fear and misinformation is critical thinking and media literacy. 

Further Reading

Adams, Cecil. 2007. Are U.S. Postal Service workers more likely to ‘go postal’? The Straight Dope (March 9). Available at https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2697/going-postal/. 
 
Beckett, Lois. 2016. Most victims of US mass shootings are black, data analysis finds. The Guardian (May 23). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/23/mass-shootings-tracker-analysis-us-gun-control-reddit. 
 
Blinder, Alan, Amy Harmon, and Richard Oppel Jr. 2019. Virginia officials will not utter name of ‘the 13th person.’ The New York Times (June 4): A15. 
 
Cai, Weiyi, and Jugal Patel. 2019. A half-century of school shootings like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Parkland. The New York Times (May 11). Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/05/11/us/school-shootings-united-states.html.
 
Duxbury, Scott, Laura Frizzell, and Sade Lindsay. 2018. Mental illness, the media, and the moral politics of mass violence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 55(6): 766–797.
 
Emery, David. 2018. How many school shootings have taken place so far in 2018? Snopes.com (February 16). Available at https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/02/16/how-many-school-shootings-in-2018/. 
 
Engber, Daniel. 2017. Mass shooters aren’t disproportionately white. Slate.com (October 6). Available at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/10/what-the-white-mass-shooter-myth-gets-right-and-wrong-about-killers-demographics.html. 
 
Hay, Mark. 2017. What I learned tracking every mass shooting in America and Europe in 2016. Vice.com (January 3). Available at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bmn438/what-i-learned-tracking-every-mass-shooting-in-america-and-europe-in-2016

Ingraham, Christopher. 2016. We have three different definitions of ‘mass shooting’ and we probably need more. The Washington Post (February 26). Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/26/we-have-three-different-definitions-of-mass-shooting-and-we-probably-need-more/. 

Vossekuil, B., R.A. Fein, M. Reddy, et al. 2002. The Final
Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of
School Attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service and
U.S. Department of Education.

One comment on “Mass Shootings and Media Literacy”

  • Using past histories of mental health treatment to assess if the bulk of mass shooters are mentally ill has a significant problem, in that only about 43% of people with a mental illness receive treatment in the first place.  In addition, this stat doesn’t reflect if the treatment actually helped promote recovery in those that managed to get help.  “In 2017, among the 46.6 million adults with any mental illness, 19.8 million (42.6%) received mental health services in the past year.”  – NIMH  


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