How Mass Shootings Literally Spread Like A Virus Because Of The Media

by John Haltiwanger

Gun violence in this country is not a coincidence, it's a product of the ubiquity of guns.

America has more guns per capita than any country in the world. Simultaneously, it has the highest firearm homicide rate in the developed world.

With that said, while gun violence is obviously a problem in the US, crime has actually decreased significantly over the past 20 years or so. The causes of the drop in crime are unclear and still open to debate, but what is clear is public perception of crime is fundamentally skewed.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there's been a 51 percent decline in violent crime since 1991 and a 54 percent decline in homicides.

Additionally, a Bureau of Justice report found firearm-related homicides decreased by 39 percent between 1993-2011.

The American public, however, seems to be unaware of this. A Gallup poll released in November shows a majority of Americans (63 percent) believes crime has gone up.

This is directly tied to sensationalized media coverage, which has distorted the public's impression of the actual crime rate.

For example, as the Brennan Center for Justice highlights, homicides are at a historic low in New York City, but this hasn't necessarily impacted mentions of "murder" or "homicide" in the headlines:

Headline mentions of murder in The New York Times per year have bounced around a lot but don't show the same steady, downward trend as homicides themselves. There were 129 mentions of 'homicide' or 'murder' in the Times' headlines in 1990, when the murder rate was at a historical high. There were 135 in 2013.

Indeed, it seems the mainstream media would have the public believe the country is getting more violent, when the statistics suggest otherwise.

But what's perhaps most problematic about this trend is it's relationship to a very troubling statistic: the rise in mass shootings in the US.

recent study published in the Journal PLOS ONE suggests mass killings (the murder of four or more people during a single incident) and school shootings are contagious and spread like a virus. The researchers involved found this is directly linked to national media coverage and high rates of gun ownership.

The lead author of the study, Sherry Towers, is a research professor in the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center at Arizona State University.

Towers was nearly involved in a school shooting at Purdue University in January 2014. She noticed there had already been three other school shootings the same week and began to wonder if there was a link, which led to the study.

Along with the other researchers involved, Towers gathered data on mass killings and school shootings and fit them into a "contagion model." In other words, they wanted to see if these incidents increased the likelihood of similar occurrences.

Ultimately, they found mass killings and school shootings did indeed spread like a contagion, or the communication of a disease from one person to another.

The study showed for every mass killing or school shooting, the probability of similar incidents occurring increased 20 to 30 percent for 13 days.

Moreover, as Tower explains:

What we believe may be happening is national news media attention is like a 'vector' that reaches people who are vulnerable.

Speaking with CNN, Towers noted if at least three people were shot, but fewer than four killed, news coverage typically remained local and did not have the same contagious effect as mass killings.

Simply put, it appears national news outlets are specifically interested in reporting on mass killings due to their brutal nature and capacity to generate viewership. The study seems to suggest this leads disturbed and attention-seeking individuals to commit similar violent acts.

As noted above, there has been a disturbing rise in mass shootings in recent years, which coincides with the study's findings.

The Congressional Research Service recently released a report that found mass public shootings have increased in frequency from 1.1 a year in the 70s to 4.4 in the present day.

Likewise, an FBI study released last September revealed the average of mass shootings increased from 6.4 a year between 2000 and 2007 to 16.4 a year between 2008 and 2013.

Unfortunately, the "contagion" study also seems to align with the horrific and tragic shooting in Virginia on Wednesday. The shooter was a deeply disturbed individual who said he was inspired by the recent shooting in Charleston. He also applauded the infamous shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007, expressing admiration for the shooters.

Due to the number of people involved, the shooting doesn't qualify as a mass killing, but that doesn't detract from the horrendous nature of it. It also doesn't diminish the connection this awful incident has with Sherry Towers' study and its findings surrounding media coverage and the probability of violence.

There is no simple solution to gun violence in the US. But it's become increasingly clear when the mainstream media focuses heavily on perpetrators of high-profile shootings, it often serves to idealize them in the minds of certain individuals, which can lead to further violence.

As Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, contends:

It's the excessive media attention that creates the copycat phenomenon. We make celebrities out of monsters.

Furthermore, it's far too easy to obtain a weapon in this country, and it's no coincidence Towers' study found mass killings and school shootings were more often in states with high rates of gun ownership. Not to mention, a study from the Center of American Progress shows the states with the weakest gun laws have drastically higher rates of gun violence.

History suggests we will see no major changes in terms of gun laws following Wednesday's tragedy. We can hope more will begin to champion common sense gun laws, such as universal background checks, but this is unlikely.

But if the public and politicians can't learn a lesson from this, perhaps the mainstream media can: Focus on the problem of gun violence, not the individuals who commit horrible crimes.

Citations: The Many Causes of Americas Decline In Crime (The Atlantic), Why Mass Killings May Be Contagious New Study Examines (ABC News), School shootings mass killings are contagious study finds (CNN), Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings (PLOS One), Disturbed Va gunman angered by Charleston shootings (USA Today), US Gun Policy (CFR), Firearm Violence (BJS), Crime in the US 2012 (FBI), Most Americans Still See Crime Up Over Last Year (Gallup), Homicide (HSPH), Americas Faulty Perception of Crime Rates (Brennan Center for Justice), Crime Stats for 2013 (FBI), The Many Causes Of Americas Decline In Crime (The Atlantic), Mass Public Shootings On Rise (USA Today), Mass Shootings on the Rise New FBI Study Shows (Newsweek), VA governor We need universal background checks (CNN), A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013 (FBI), America Under the Gun (CAP)