The following letter was emailed to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, on November 21, 2013. We are publishing it here to mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that occurred on December 14, 2012.
Dear Ms. Sullivan,
The news media have long received scrutiny for their possible role in encouraging mass shootings and other sensational forms of violence. There is indeed a growing consensus among researchers that even seemingly responsible reporting may encourage mass shooters’ desire to achieve infamy, and that saturated, highly detailed news coverage of these events creates an imitation effect by planting concrete ideas in other troubled minds. The evidence that certain kinds of reporting may encourage imitation, whether knowing or unconscious, is even stronger for another form of violence: suicides. The Centers for Disease Control has recognized this conclusion since 1994, when it released media guidelines aimed at curbing this phenomenon. These findings are described in greater detail in a cover story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal Weekend Review this month.
I’m writing to you because of the role of the Times in setting a standard for responsible journalism, and because of the paper’s distinct openness to scrutiny in the form of the office of the public editor. I’m hoping that you will weigh in on whether the record of the Times in reporting on mass shootings and suicides has been problematic, and will offer your view on whether it is desirable and plausible for the paper to voluntarily change its practices along lines similar to the ones I describe in the article. (I should also note my personal affiliation with the Times, where I previously worked as a research assistant in the Opinion department.)
While the Times has largely steered clear of the irresponsible sensationalism in the coverage of mass shootings typical of cable and tabloid news, it has — albeit with good intention — underlined the motivations for these acts by publishing shooters’ propaganda, and may have strengthened an imitation effect by offering saturated coverage and highly specific and lurid detail of these events. For example, graphics about the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting included timelines of the days leading up to the event and of the shooting itself, with specific details of weaponry, graphic descriptions of carnage and suffering, and a detailed play-by-play of the perpetrator’s movements and how he killed the victims. The Times also chose to publish the shooter’s words and stylized self-photos, and frames from the video manifesto he sent to NBC News. One of the bloggers for the Times’s “Lede” news blog then engaged in a textual exegesis of those words and images.
The Times has also published articles on the motives and grievances of mass shooters, including the Virginia Tech shooter in particular (1, 2), and arguments that mass shootings owe to cultural forces on white men or Korean men. Aside from amounting to little more than speculation — and, in the latter cases, ignoring statistics showing that the racial distribution among mass shooters closely matches the general population — these articles tend to reinforce the narratives shooters deliberately craft that the responsibility for their actions lies in forces beyond their control, or even that these acts have some ultimate justification.
While mass shootings are usually a form of murder-suicide, there is a related set of questions about reporting practices for suicide in general. The role of imitation in suicide is now fairly well established, particularly for highly specific, novel, and publicized forms. A systematic review published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that “the vast majority” of studies “support the idea that media coverage of suicidal behaviours and actual suicidality are associated.” This idea has enough support by researchers that in 1994 a set of guidelines recommending changes in suicide reporting was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was updated in 2001, and issued jointly by the CDC, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of the Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, and several other prominent public health organizations.
However, these recommendations were not generally adopted by journalists. One 2003 study in the journal American Behavioral Scientist singled out the Times in particular for problematic suicide reporting during the 1990s, including years following the release of the 1994 CDC guidelines. A 2010 study in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior examined several newspapers, including the Times, in the two years following the 2001 guidelines, and found continued problems, particularly the widespread reporting of specific details on the method and location of suicide. One report in the Times from just two months ago gave specific, vivid details about the method and location of one teenage girl’s suicide, including a prominent image at the top of the article that in effect advertised both.
The evidence for the role of news media in encouraging suicides and mass shootings has become strong enough for the Times to reconsider its responsibility in how it reports these events. When it comes to violence that may be spurred by imitation, should the paper adopt similar cautions to the ones many media organizations already have for stories about sexual assault, crimes involving minors, and terrorism and national security, in which the value of crafting narratives and actively reporting every detail is balanced against other interests like privacy and public safety?
The New Atlantis
Reporting Mass Shootings and Suicides