Media and Gun Violence: Allies or Combatants?

The Non-Violence sculpture at the United Nations headquarters in New York City This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Photo by Didier Moïse.

by Sarah Mensch

The Columbine High School Massacre in 1999 resulted in the deaths of twelve students, a teacher, and two shooters. Most recall that April day and feel sorrow, grief, fear. Such is not the case for the 74 people who planned their own shootings inspired by the Columbine massacre in 30 different states since the 1999 shooting . Twenty-one of those planners were successful in their plots, killing 89 more people, and injuring 16 others; nine of the perpetrators themselves died in the attacks.

These post-Colombine attacks reflect a phenomenon dubbed “copycat crimes,” in which prospective perpetrators are so in awe of a homicidal crime (usually a shooting) that they aim to honor it or out-do it by carrying out their own attack on the anniversary of the event that inspired them or planning to kill more victims than the attackers they mimic.

The media appear to play an enormous role in supplying the details  and perhaps enhancing the motivations for copycat crimes.

Movies, TV shows, and social media platforms provide  stories that contribute to glamorizing the criminals. After a shooting, the perpetrator’s face is plastered all over cyberspace and the news. His tactics are revealed in detail, and speculations are made about what kind of person the shooter was, what drove him to act as he did. Debates proliferate and are rehashed.

The shooter is generally portrayed as a loner, and this makes him an antihero. The antihero image and bombardment of information and imagery may provide a fertile seedbed  for copycat crimes to take root.

What we have learned about copycat crimes should serve as a powerful impetus for a change in media rhetoric. News media have an obligation to report truthful news, but how about shifting the focus of the shooting stories from the perpetrators to the victims?

Why not emphasize the victims’ stories, the grief to their families and friends? How about information on the role of the media in the impact that gun crimes have on various audiences?  Giving media power to victims of shootings might counteract the glamorized antihero status that often seems to be given to the shooter.

Isn’t it time to share widely the research on the media role in supporting gun violence and stimulate public efforts to curb the role of the media in copycat crimes?

Sarah Mensch is a psychology major at Boston University. She is thrilled to be working on a Directed Study focusing on the effect of the media on gun violence under the supervision of Dr. Malley Morrison. When Sarah graduates, she aims to go on to graduate school to earn an MSW and become a therapist. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys pursuing her minor in Deaf Studies, photography, and exploring Boston.




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4 Responses to Media and Gun Violence: Allies or Combatants?

  1. LB says:

    Sarah ~ I’ve been thinking a lot since your last post, specifically about our cognitive dissonance as a society when it comes to guns and violence. How we’re a nation of war and empire; each election we cast our votes for, condone and *empower* those who, driven by a false sense of exceptionalism, support and glorify war, weapons of war, murder and oppression for profit ~ then are understandably horrified by the natural progression of violence spilling into our lives and communities.

    Violence (and gun violence) has always been an issue for the least among us, the poor who are forced to murder and die in our wars, and who inhabit our sidewalks, parks and poorer communities, as well as the millions who face and have faced U.S. aggression in countries and communities outside our range of vision and concern, invisible to all but a few. Maybe this *invisibility* contributes to our cognitive dissonance and conditioning and is part of the problem.

    You made a legitimate yet ironic point about the media’s responsibility to “truthfully” (and by this, I assume you mean accurately) report crimes without glorifying those who commit them. Unfortunately, and with very few exceptions, the mainstream media does NOT accurately depict or report on the ongoing human suffering caused by U.S. aggression, war and war crimes. Because of this, very few Americans are aware of or grieve for those whose lives and homes are destroyed by weapons of war and oppression on foreign soil, nor for those within our borders who’ve always suffered from systemic, state-sanctioned violence, poverty and oppression.

    It’s why the U.S. and its citizens are viewed as hypocrites in many parts of the world, also why the least among us here in the U.S. are mostly forgotten, have less of a voice, understand their invisibility in a society that worships the false gods of war, violence and empire.

    Though stricter gun legislation and education are necessary and could potentially be helpful in limiting some forms of gun violence, I think its roots are complicated and run deep, and will take more than legal remedies to fully address. Maybe the answer lies within and requires us to take a more critical look at how our individual and collective values (and denial) have historically shaped our glorification of violence as both entertainment and as a means of resolving conflict/advancing the goals of *empire*.

  2. Dot Walsh says:

    Good post and comment. I think it is necessary if we are going to the roots of violence to separate men and women. Why do men even as boys migrate towards sports both as a participant and a viewer? I ask the question because I have wondered for years why it is. Now I am married to a man who has no or very limited interest in sports and yet he likes historical movies dealing with war. Women on the other hand are drawn to issues that bring us together as a community. They use their power to speak out and act out on behalf of themselves or others. Now I realize that this is changing and young women are becoming more involved in acts of violence. Our culture that keeps producing more violent games on social media are an example of how corporations control the populace. A little story. A friend told me her family cat died of old age and her young grandson would not believe the cat was dead because there was no blood like he was used to seeing on video games. So these games are influencing our young children and numbing them to the reality of life and violence.

  3. David says:

    Excellent article!

    I think your suggestion that the media ought to focus on the victims and their stories is right on the money. I completely agree that the media has a tendency to turn the shooter into an anti-hero, someone for a would be copy-cats to empathize with. I sincerely hope we as a society begin to hold the media accountable for their role in continuing the cycle of gun violence.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue

  4. Pingback: Promoting the Joker? The media and gun violence | Engaging Peace

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