When an armed student entered Parkrose High School in Portland earlier this month, Keanon Lowe was the hero of the day. The former college football star, who works at the school, subdued the gunman. No one was injured.
His story got the wide play it deserved. Lowe was interviewed on national television, and he received a standing ovation at Monday night’s NBA Western Conference Finals game.
But what struck me was the widespread sharing of the student’s name and photograph. I saw it all over Portland TV and in The Oregonian. The Columbian used the student’s name and image on an inside page of Sunday’s print edition. I even posted a story with his name, which I got from a police press release, after I saw our competitors had done so.
Looking back, I wonder if that was a mistake. A 2016 scholarly paper presented to the American Psychological Association by two faculty members at Western New Mexico University concluded that “media contagion” plays a role in encouraging mass shootings.
“Mass shootings are on the rise, and so is media coverage of them,” said one of the researchers, Jennifer B. Johnston, in a news release about the study. “At this point, can we determine which came first? Is the relationship merely unidirectional: More shootings lead to more coverage? Or is it possible that more coverage leads to more shootings?”
Johnston and the other psychologists found that people who commit mass shootings in America tend to share three traits: rampant depression, social isolation and pathological narcissism.
According to the National Center for Health Research, studies indicate that the more media attention a shooter gets, the more likely the event will inspire a future mass shooter. For example, a 2015 study found that after a mass shooting, there was an increased chance of another one occurring in the next 13 days. A 2017 study found that media coverage of a mass shooting also may increase shootings beyond that time period.
Now, the Parkrose incident was contained before anyone got hurt. Nobody knows what this young man might have done. There’s a possibility he would have harmed only himself. But I think it’s reasonable to assume that had it not been for Mr. Lowe, someone would have been wounded or killed.
School shootings are unfortunately not rare. According to that study by the National Center for Health Research, the U.S. has averaged a dozen school shootings per year since 2000. In 2018, there was one incident per week on average.
With that kind of incidence, there is obviously plenty of blame to share. Some decry the easy availability of firearms. Others point to violent video games, the rise of online bullying or the lack of mental health treatment. I think all of those factors play a part. I think that publicity is a factor, too.
Obviously, this was news. The news media needed to cover it. But what would have been a best practice?
Johnston suggests news media cover mass shootings more like we cover suicides. When we write about them, we shouldn’t share the details. We should consciously avoid glamorizing the person and the action. We should focus on those they left behind.
She said, “If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years,” she said. “Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed.”
In other words, media should keep the focus on the day’s hero, Keanon Lowe, or on the Parkrose students who were threatened.
I think it’s worth a try.