The Psychology Behind Copycat Killers: Media Contagion

Anyone who regularly watches the news has likely observed the phenomenon: Violent incidents seem to come in waves, almost like a domino effect. But do mass shootings and the subsequent news coverage inspire other crimes? It could be a combination, but the truth is that we don't fully understand the link between the media and violence. The idea, known as "media contagion," has plenty of anecdotal evidence. Many shooters - particularly school shooters - explicitly point to others' past crimes as inspiration or blueprints for their own violent acts.

Those inclined to commit mass violence have other factors in common, too. Research shows they are typically white males who identify as loners or outsiders and feel wronged by society. Detailed news coverage of mass shootings and other crimes could influence this type of person. Whether the media plants the seed or fertilizes it is unclear - there isn't much research on the copycat effect or media contagion due to the US government's moratorium on funding research concerning gun violence.

  • Experts Say Media Coverage Of Violent Crimes Has Likely Led To An Increase 

    Jennifer B. Johnston, assistant professor of psychology at Western New Mexico University, said: 

    Mass shootings are on the rise and so is media coverage of them. 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?

    To Johnston and other researchers, the answer is clear: Media coverage has indeed influenced more mass violence and crimes. According to a 2015 media contagion model, since the years preceding the 2000s, the number of mass shootings has risen. In the past, mass shootings occurred about three times per year, but now happen approximately once every 12.5 days. Compare this to the rate of school shootings, which transpire roughly every 31.6 days.

  • Limiting Details In Crime Coverage May Help Curb Mass Violence

    Professor Jennifer B. Johnston said the media continues to capitalize off of crime by defending the public's "right to know" about mass violence. Johnston also said, "frightening homicides are [news stations'] No. 1 ratings and advertising boosters." She urged people to stop sharing these details:

    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. Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a 1/3 reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed.

    Someone who is on the brink may feel compelled to act due to excessive media coverage of mass shootings and violent crime. Worse yet, they may use the reports as a criminal blueprint.

    Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia, explained:

    Those of us in this field, it's the first thing we think about when we read accounts of these recent mass murders: The detailed coverage of terrorist attacks may be giving people who are vulnerable or thinking along these line ideas about what to do and how to do it.

    Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina and columnist for The New York Times, also advocates for fewer details in the media. Tufekci believes that responsible media coverage entails omitting the specifics of a crime, such as the type of gun, ammunition, or protective gear the killer used. This information could influence another ill-intentioned person.

  • There's A Thin Line Between Reporting Useful Information And Exploitation
    Photo: NS Newsflash / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    There's A Thin Line Between Reporting Useful Information And Exploitation

    At the heart of the discussion on mass shootings, one has to ask: Where is the balance between informing the public and not inspiring mass shooters?

    Randy Cohen, a former ethicist for The New York Times Magazine, said the media's role is to provide information, not fight criminals. Cohen further explained that it's not a far leap to go from excluding details about mass killings to withholding other information about matters that allegedly don't benefit the public.

    "Do you not report big bank robberies because people will want to rob banks? Do you not cover the Kardashians because it will inspire other people to be vulgar and self-promoting? These are difficult, challenging questions," Cohen said.

  • Violent Media May Influence Behavior

    Does violent media, such as video games and movies, incite violence? If so, to what extent? Robert Beattey, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said:

    The scientific literature has found - almost universally - that there is a very small but statistically significant correlation between consumption of violent media and raises in level of aggression. The problem is that millions of people consume violent games and movies, but only [a tiny percentage] end up hurting another person because of it.

    Though the average person won't feel compelled to commit mass violence because of something they saw on TV or in a video game, these forms of media could be enough to tilt someone who is on the brink.

    Robert Morgan, chair of the department of psychology at Texas Tech University, said, "It opens the floodgates, so to speak. The individual would see: Somebody else did this... I can do this as well."

  • Those Who Commit Copycat Crimes Have A Specific Profile

    People who commit copycat crimes tend to fall into a similar category: The majority are white, heterosexual males between the ages of 20 and 50. Researchers say these men "tend to see themselves as victims of injustice" and believe society has somehow wronged them. As one writer for The Atlantic put it:

    It's possible that many instances of white-male mass-shooting violence are, in fact, driven by a media-inspired religion of grievance and greatness - a mass-distributed sickness for which male outcasts are most vulnerable to infection.

    Copycat criminals typically don't emulate petty theft - instead, they turn to committing mass shootings or serial killings, often feeling compelled by prospective notoriety. Professor Jennifer B. Johnston at New Mexico University said, "Unfortunately, we find that a cross-cutting trait among many profiles of mass shooters is [a] desire for fame." She posited this phenomenon coincides with the 24-hour news cycle on TV and the internet.

    Johnston's paper on the subject suggested white males who commit mass murders may be disenfranchised and "motivated by a misguided attempt at highly visible dominance." Furthermore, Johnston said their need for validation might come from a cultural shift that challenges dominant patriarchal ideals. Their "newly experienced societal disenfranchisement and extant expectations collide," and they see gaining fame from acts of mass violence as a way of re-establishing their lost control.

  • The US Government Banned Federally Funded Research Into Gun Violence

    Though it's easy to assume violence begets more violence, and that coverage glorifying crimes inspires copycats, there is startlingly limited research to back up or disprove these claims.

    Before 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted research into gun violence. But when the National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control, Congress threatened to strip funding for the CDC unless the research ended. The CDC ceased gun violence investigations, and researchers have published few studies of the phenomenon since then.

    Government entities continue to uphold this legal block on gun violence research, formally known as the Dickey Amendment, despite the uptick in mass shootings. Many researchers argue that if we don't understand how and why gun violence happens - let alone how media coverage might influence copycat killers - then we have no way of preventing it.

    Despite the lack of funding, a group of researchers completed one of the most recent - and largest - studies on the contagion effect in mass killings.