The Cost of a Good Story: What the Mass Media Doesn’t Tell You About Mass Murder

Since the 1980s we’ve seen a rapid increase in the amount of mass shootings in the United States.

The question is why?

Is it guns?

Well, obviously not. Gun ownership has always been ubiquitous in the United States.

It’s not like all of a sudden a massive crate of guns was dropped on the country during the 1980s.

If anything the opposite is true where in 1986 Ronald Reagan passed a fully automatic rifle ban and since then cities and states have passed more and more gun laws.

And that’s not to say there aren’t pros and cons to gun legislation, but when it comes to mass murder it’s absolutely clear that guns are not the core cause of their increasing frequency.

This is kind of awkward, but the core cause is you.

Now before you get your gun and point it at me, let me explain.

What has changed since the 1980s is where there use to only be a handful of major news networks, nowadays due to the internet, there is an infinite amount of news networks.

And whereas back in the day news networks succeeded by appealing to the broadest amount of people, which meant not being too controversial, nowadays media companies succeed by appealing to a niche market and being extremely controversial to rise above the noise.

This is why news reports are increasingly sensationalized, dramatic, louder, angrier, entertaining, hyperbolic, less substantive, and more detached from reality.

The reality is that the world, statistically speaking, has never been more safe, rich, and free!

But with that said there are still serious problems we face and just because things are good today doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be good tomorrow.

My hope is that we will be more intentional with how we absorb our news because what gets attention gets power.

Donald Trump is a prime example of that. Whether you love em or hate em, he is President of the United States, not despite the negative media coverage he received, but because of it. If the media was more substantive than sensational then he wouldn’t have gotten past the republican primary, but I don’t blame the media. The media is like any other business. It gives it customers what it wants. You wanted stories about Donald Trump and now you will get many more stories about Donald Trump for years to come.

And mass shooters are another example.

This is how it plays out…

Mass shooters want fame.

“We find that a cross-cutting trait among many profiles of mass shooters is desire for fame. This quest for fame among mass shooters skyrocketed since the mid-1990s in correspondence to the emergence of widespread 24-hour news coverage on cable news programs.” — Dr. Johnston, Author of Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect

The mass shooter then opens fire killing as many people as he can.

The news then covers every detail about the mass shooter. What underwear did he wear!? Hanes? Under Armour? Commando for sure!

You then pay attention to the story more than other stories, especially as the details of the killer pour in.

Now as you sit there glued to your screen, every time you see the killer’s face or hear the killer’s name, just keep in the back of your mind that YOU ARE INCREASING THE LIKELIHOOD OF A FUTURE SHOOTING.

“The investigators applied a mathematical model and found that shootings that resulted in at least four deaths launched a period of contagion, marked by a heightened likelihood of more bloodshed, lasting an average of 13 days. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of all such violence took place in these windows.” — Scientific American

Because to an aspiring mass shooter he’s fantasizing about his own face up there someday and subconsciously hears the news anchor say, “Hey, if you kill enough people we’ll put your face up here for the world to see and for the first time in your life you’ll be significant!”

Everyone gets what they want (except for the victims of course): the mass murderer gets fame, the mass media gets money, and you get entertained.

Now you maybe thinking… “Well Anthony, I don’t watch to be entertained. I watch because I feel morally responsible to pay attention.”

Until recently I felt that way too. The reason Hitler could kill so many jews was because so many people were unaware and indifferent.

But ultimately I want to make two KEY points…

Scold Media on Social Media

If you decide to post something about a mass shooting I hope you scold the media for humanizing the killer.

“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 one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed.” —Dr. Johnston

More of us should REMIND the media that every time they show the killer’s face or say the killer’s name they are taking future lives.

The camera is more powerful than the gun.

Mass murder coverage should focus on the victims and heroes, not the killers, in order to reduce the “contagiousness” of another shooting.

And it’s not good enough to simply say nice things about the victims and bad things about the killers.

Simply showing the killer’s face is enough to promote future mass shootings. This is because a picture says a 1000 words.

Killer’s face should always be pixelated or blurred

For example, a political attack ad was once aired against Ronald Reagan. When people finished watching the ad, they actually reported more favorable views of the president. The advertisers were confused. The ad narrator said only negative things about the president, but yet the ad imagery made the president look more presidential. Conclusion: visual overpowers audio.

Attention: Statistics > Story

Ultimately our attention is limited.

So if you’re going to spend an hour a day on the news, how can you best divide your attention so that you give more power to the things that will do the most amount of good?

Click less on links that have to do with sensationalizing mass shootings, Donald Trump, conspiracy theories.

Click more on links that have to do with education, cancer, sustainable energy, artificial intelligence, space, human psychology, life philosophy.

But what if one of your co-workers comes up and asks, “Did you hear about the most recent mass shooting?”
You could confidently respond, “No. Why is it important that I should know?”
This may shock them, “Of course! Don’t you care about people dying!?”
And you could say, “It’s because I care that I don’t care.”

In other words, we don’t care as much about mass shootings because we believe that one life doesn’t matter more simply because it might have ended in a more dramatic fashion. We care about statistics over stories! Focusing on mass shootings are a politically expensive way to save little to no lives when we could be using that political capital to do far more positive good for the world by focusing on areas like… car accidents.

If I was President of the United States I wouldn’t just complain about the modern media environment… I would use it to my advantage.

The modern media likes to sell stories so a smart president would help them sell stories that also lead to the greatest improvement in humanity’s statistics.

For example…

January 1st, 2017 | I would have sat at the oval office desk and reported that today 342 people died from senseless avoidable destruction. More so than any single mass shooting in American history. 342 people who will never make it home to their families. Their names and faces would flash across the screen. And I would tell the nation that we have a moral responsibility to save and empower every human life. And that last year alone 37,000 people died on the road, the deadliest amount of car accidents in a decade, and that as president I would be committed to saving at least 10,000 lives by the time I sit before you this time next year. I would send a bill to the congress that would massively revamp our infrastructure, modernize our roads, public transportation, and enter a contract with Tesla to roll out the first fleet of driverless electric federal vehicles starting with the presidential limo, which would be renamed the Automated Force One. I would then take the Automated Force One cross country, with cameras close behind, to speak with the families of those who lost loved ones because of one wrong turn to demonstrate that now as a nation we would make the right turn.

Okay, that last line might be a tad overly dramatic, but my point is that I think it’s better to point the camera at meaningful solutions instead of nihilistic killers.