If causality matters, should the media talk about mass shootings?

My answer to that question is “maybe not” or at the very least “not as much”. Given the sheer amount of fear that can be generated by a shooting, it is understandable to be shocked and the need to talk about it is equally understandable. However, I think this might be an unfortunate opportunity to consider the incentives at play.

I assume that criminals, even crazy ones, are relatively rational. They weigh the pros and cons of potential targets, they assess the most efficient tool or weapon to accomplish the objectives they set etc. That entails that, in their warped view of the world, there are benefits to committing atrocities. In some instances, the benefit is pure revenge as was the case in one of the famous shooting in my hometown of Montreal (i.e. a university professor decided to avenge himself of the slights caused by other professors). In other instances, the benefit is defined in part by the attention that the violent perpetrator attracts for himself. This was the case of another infamous shooting in Montreal where the killer showed up at an engineering school to kill 14 other students and staff. He committed suicide and also left a suicide statement that read like a garbled political manifesto. In other words, killers can be trying to “maximize” media hits.

This “rational approach” to mass shootings opens the door to a question about causality: is the incidence of mass shootings determining the number of media hits or is the number of media hits determining the incidence of mass shootings. In a recent article in the Journal of Public Economicsthe possibility of the latter causal link has been explored with regards to terrorism.  Using the New York Times‘ coverage of some 60,000 terrorist attacks in 201 countries over 43 years, Michael Jetter used the exogenous shock caused by natural disasters to study they reduced the reporting of terrorist attacks and how this, in turn, reduced attention to terrorism. That way, he could arrive at some idea (by the negative) of causality. He found that one New York Times article increased attacks by 1.4 in the following three weeks. Now, this applies to terrorism, but why would it not apply to mass shooters? After all, there are very similar in their objectives and methods – at the very least with regards to the shooters who seek attention.

If the causality runs in the direction suggested by Jetter, then the full-day coverage offered by CNN or NBC or FOX is making things worse by increasing the likelihood of an additional shooting. For some years now, I have been suggesting this possibility to journalist friends of mine and arguing that maybe the best way to talk about terrorism or mass shooters is to move them from the front page of a newspaper to a one-inch box on page 20 or to move the mention from the interview to the crawler at the bottom. In each discussion, my claim about causality is brushed aside with either incredulity at the logic and its empirical support or I get something like “yes, but we can’t really not talk about it”. And so, the thinking ends there. However, I am quite willing to state that its time for media outlets to deeply reflect upon their role and how to best accomplish the role they want. And that requires thinking about causality and accepting that “splashy” stories may be better left ignored.

One thought on “If causality matters, should the media talk about mass shootings?

  1. Yes! Not only should they be giving minimal coverage to these acts, they ought to be seriously considering the role that the media plays in desensitizing society in general, and our children in particular, to violence.

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