Saturday, October 10, 2015

Does Publicizing Mass Shooters Benefit Anyone?

I ran across this perspective posted on the Kottke blog.  It is basically a journalist writing an opinion piece about why the names of mass shooters should be used in the media.  I think it is a reaction to the banning of the use of the names and details of mass shooters by some law enforcement and the media.  The Sheriff in the most recent mass shooting incident refused to release the name of the shooter.  The argument against releasing the name of the shooter goes something like this.  At least part of the motivation of some of these shooters involves the fame and publicity that they will achieve based on the incident.  The mass shooting incidents have been in my estimation fairly compared to terrorist incidents where the victims are killed in some of the most horrible and sadistic ways possible as part of the media campaign by these organizations.  It enhances any kidnaping and extortion threats that they may have and also enhances their image as a ruthless and single-minded entity.  Until recently that behavior was also a ticket to widespread international media exposure.  When the media cycle becomes knee jerk in response to mass shootings or terrorist events it is predictable no-cost publicity to both types of perpetrators.

There is additional evidence in the personal effects of many of these shooters and well as evidence from the staging of the events that publicity is a strong motivating factor.  The shooters often have computers and written statements about the motivation for their acts, and some of that material describes the event as something for the world to see.

The counterargument from the journalist seems to be that it is important for the public to hear all this information.  He makes the expected argument of the press that all of the news needs to be reported.  He also spins the political angle and suggests that conservative gun advocates including the sheriff involved in the most recent incident and then Fox News have elected not to name the perpetrator and connects this with the right wing tendency to talk about mental illness being the problem and not uncontrolled access to firearms.

I am at the point where I cringe when reading these highly politicized arguments probably because that is all that I hear when it comes to psychiatry.  The general form of the argument is that people taking a certain position have a certain ideology and therefore the conflict of interest issue reigns supreme.  Because a news service or a sheriff have been identified as being right wing and supporters of continued open access to firearms, anything they say about maintaining the anonymity of the perpetrator can be discounted based on conflict of interest.  In other words, by maintaining the anonymity of the shooter and focusing on the mental state of the shooter, the focus is shifted inappropriately away from more functional legislation to reduce firearm access.  The writer acknowledges that part of the motivation of some of these shooters is publicity or infamy whether they survive or not.  It is hard to deny because a review of the personal effects of some of these shooters makes it explicit.  The author takes the view that denying this publicity essentially gives the appearance that something is being done and this is bullshit.

First off, that does not meet my definition of bullshit from the definitive essay by Frankfurt.  According to Frankfurt, the main differentiating point between bullshitters and liars is that bullshitters have a blatant disregard for the truth.  The truth in this case is that irrespective of political motivations it is highly likely that denying these men the publicity that they seek will result in fewer of these crimes.  It might even provide a public health path to treatment for many of these individual instead of acting out.  I would suggest statutes that address the issue of how mass shooters should be handled in the event of any incident and would not only see anonymity as being important, but also confiscating property and all of the written material and images from the perpetrator and making them available for academic study, but not for the evening news.

The author also seems blind to the role of journalists in this process.  Every massacre triggers the standard response from journalists that I have written about on this blog many times.  All of the shocking details, the interviews with the aggrieved, the response from politicians, and the "profiling" of the perpetrator.  Then after a few days, the President comes on and we are all told to move on.  It seems that the President in his latest address has questioned the value of this process before members of the press have including this author.

My conclusion is that there has to be obvious progress in the area of gun control (yes - I said control).  But I have also accepted the fact that the power structure in this country does not have to yield to public opinion.  My decades of treating violent and aggressive people have also led me to understand that this is also a public health problem and as a public health problem - multiple measures need to be in place.   Restricting wide spread publicity for the perpetrators is one of many logical options.

There is also the issue of contagion.  Does a large incident with a lot of news coverage trigger copycat crimes?  There have been some anecdotal reports that copycat crimes occur in the specific area of school shooting.  The authors of a recent PLOS article (2), analyze the USA Today Mass Killing database and the the Brady Campaign School Shooting database.   The original databases and any modifications to them are available at this link.  The authors comment that a contagion model has been applied to several natural events like the financial markets, burglaries and terrorist attacks.  The authors specify the model they are using and go on to show that according to the USA Today database there was a mass killing (involving 4 or more people killed) every 12.5 in the US.  For the Brady database school sooting occurred every 31.6 days.  The authors illustrate there is a contagion effect for mass killings involving firearms but not mass killings that do not involve firearms.  They also show correlations between state prevalence of firearm ownership and mass shootings, but the authors note that mass shooters commit suicide 48% of the time and that is much higher than the expected suicide rate by perpetrators committing a single act of homicide (5-10%).  Mass shooters who commit suicide also kill 22% more people than mass shooters who do not.  The graphics and statistics in this article are great and I highly recommend a look at the graphs showing what part of the data is due to the contagion effect.  I also applaud the authors efforts to publish essentially public health research in an area that has been actively suppressed by Congress.  Scientific research on firearms policy is apparently incompatible with the Second Amendment.

So it turns out that there are probably legitimate reasons for withholding the identity of mass shooters and decreasing the disclosures about the incident and in some cases the audiovisual material that they have produced to promote their activity.  There is a well known journalistic tendency to wrap themselves in the flag when it comes to their not having complete access and the ability to disclose information, but the process is far from perfect and in many cases they defer to national security.   In the case of the databases involved there is clear asymmetry in terms of which incidents get publicity and which do not.  This is an opportunity for them to provide some news about public health interventions to prevent violence and mass shootings.

I don't think the importance of the notoriety or contagion factors in motivating mass shooters can be cancelled out by a conflict of interest argument.  But the conflict of interest card seems to be played like it is the trump card these days.

I also don't accept the "we as a society have made our choice" argument.  It's not really them it is us.  That argument is a stark contrast to how our government runs.  "We" are no more responsible for a society flush with guns that "we" were for three unnecessary wars based largely on fictional threats.  That oligarchy can function primarily with the full cooperation and lack of critical analysis by the American press.  The fact that late night comedians can produce more analysis of these issues than mainstream journalists is an indication of how much serious reporting is lacking.

There is probably no better example of reporting deficiency than how mass shooting incidents have been handled for decades.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1:  Josh Marshall.  The Great Evasion.  October 2, 2015.

2:  Towers S, Gomez-Lievano A, Khan M, Mubayi A, Castillo-Chavez C. Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings. PLoS One. 2015 Jul 2;10(7):e0117259. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117259. eCollection 2015. PubMed PMID: 26135941.

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