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How Mass Media Shapes Perceptions of Mass Shootings

The Columbine High School shooting has shaped public perception of mass shootings.

Twenty dead in El Paso, Texas; nine in Dayton, Ohio. Three - including two children - killed at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. And a dozen shot at the Brownsville Old Timers' Block Party in Brooklyn.

The mass media shapes public perceptions of mass shootings. How such events are covered is critical, and has received a lot of attention. But the initial decision of whether or not to cover a shooting, at all, is equally important. And Jason Silva, a researcher at William Paterson University, says we’re getting a distorted image.

Overall, about three quarters of mass shootings do receive mass media coverage, according to Silva. But the amount of coverage can vary dramatically.

“The average shooting only receives about four or five New York Times articles,” Silva explained. “Then there's these few high-profile events that receive extensive enormous levels of coverage.”

Silva cites Columbine as a prime example (and the one that got him interested in studying media coverage of mass shootings). The New York Times has published around 500 articles about Columbine, at this point.

“So, this is what is setting the American mindset and our framework for what represents a mass shooting,” Silva said. “It's these few high-profile instances and what we determine are these high-profile instances.”

Silva has looked at five decades worth of New York Times’ coverage of shootings and finds that the events that get the most coverage are not representative of mass shootings, as a whole.

“We find that a lot of coverage is dedicated to school shooters, and a lot is dedicated to ideologically motivated perpetrators,” Silva said. “However, with my research, we're finding that the reality is it's actually more often occurring in the workplace or in these open spaces, as was the case with the Gilroy shooting.”

Silva says the role of automatic or semi-automatic rifles in mass shootings is also over-represented in the media. While those weapons allow shooters to inflict more carnage in a short period of time, Silva says most mass shootings – and, for that matter, gun violence more broadly – are perpetrated with hand guns.

And, then, there’s the fundamental issue of defining what counts as a mass shooting – an issue highlighted by the events of last weekend. Three people were killed and a dozen more injured in a shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. At almost the same time, one person was killed and five were injured in a shooting in Philadelphia. And one person was killed, at least eleven injured, at the Brownsville Old Timer's Day block party in Brooklyn the night before.

There is no one, authoritative database or definition of mass shootings. Silva says the most common criterion is a shooting in which at least three (some use four) people are killed.

But shootings like those in Brooklyn and Philadelphia often don’t receive major media coverage - even if the number of deaths is higher - because of possible gang connections. Silva says there’s a long history of the media ignoring or under-reporting such violence, and that has policy ramifications.

“The prevention strategy is catered towards these sort of mass shootings that have received an enormous amount of coverage,” Silva said, noting that prevention strategies for gang-related shootings would be very different than for lone-wolf shooters.

Silva is not entirely negative in his assessment of media coverage of mass shootings. For example, he says it has been gratifying to see the No Notoriety campaign catch on. A recent analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review found that only 14 percent of U.S. publications shared the name of the shooter in the New Zealand mosque shooting earlier this year. And Silva says that trend seems to be continuing.

“We've actually noticed a dramatic change in the coverage of these shooters,” Silva said. “Oftentimes, we kind of feel like we introduced this research, and we've had these findings, and then nothing happens with them. To actually see this occurring is rather exciting.”

What the media could be doing better, according to Silva, is using sensational coverage of mass shootings as a springboard for pulling back the veil on the broader issue of gun violence – highlighting what is or is not representative about a particular event.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.