Analyzing Media Portrayals of Mental Illness Following Mass Shootings

Updated on January 9, 2018

The media's ability to provide unbiased, fact-based news coverage following a mass shooting is severely lacking. One frequent error made in the wake of such tragedies is the tendency for news sources to quickly suggest that the suspect is mentally ill. In the wake of a tragedy such as the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, a flood of news reports are quick to surface. We no longer have to wait for a newspaper or the evening news to hear about something happening. Instead, there are TV channels playing news at all hours of the day, online sources such as Huffington post, or news station websites that can be updated as quickly as someone can type a few sentences, and thanks to social media anyone can now post a video of an event within seconds or even live stream it.

This easy access to information is something many of us can appreciate, as it enables us to stay informed about our world. However, sometimes news is published so quickly, often before details of an event can even be confirmed, which leaves reporters and spectators to draw their own conclusions and fill in the blanks. This hasty non-factual reporting can have dangerous consequences.

Source

Social Media Opinions

A quote from twitter following an attack in Portland Oregon.
A quote from twitter following an attack in Portland Oregon. | Source

News anchors and journalists are not qualified to be identifying mental illnesses. Nor are they trained to uncover a motive behind a crime. When coverage of mass shootings constantly link violence with mental illness, the stereotype is reinforced. Following major events that portray mental illness as an explanation for violence, society's perception of mentally ill people becomes more negative. One harmful effect of this is that it further discourages people who are struggling with a mental illness from seeking the treatment they need.

"This has a tendency to drown out the voices of those who correctly point out that people with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it"

— https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/28/why-mental-illness-blamed-us-mass-shootings
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People with a mental illness are actually far more likely to be the victim of violence than a person without, while only a very small percentage of violent crimes can are committed by individuals with a mental illness. Yet because of the way the media represents these scenarios, this is often overlooked. One reason this may be the case is that mental illness has become the scapegoat. While news stories focus on an inaccurate link between violence and mental illness, they can continue to avoid discussion of gun control or looking at major issues like health care and the need for access to better mental health care. Many other relevant factors are overlooked as well, including pre-existing personality traits that may be linked to violent tendencies, domestic violence, or other sociocultural factors.

Ideal Practices for Media Coverage

Hasty non-factual reporting can have dangerous consequences. The wording that is used in news reports can have an effect on perceptions of mental illness, as well as potentially influencing future acts of violence or creating a "contagion" effect. Journalist Kelly McBride discusses media coverage following an event such as a mass shooting, and provides guidance on the best methods to cover these types of stories as well as some of the common errors we see. Below are some of the points McBride mentions.

  • Avoid using the shooters name whenever possible.
  • Avoid commenting on the mental health status of the shooter, as journalists and detectives are typically not qualified to make these kinds of assessments, so any such statements would be purely based on speculation.
  • Make sure to carefully report details, ensuring accuracy in order to avoid false information spreading.
  • Avoid statements that could be seen as glorifying the shooter, which could potentially encourage violent actions of another individual.

“the only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.” Yet this expansion of guns in everyday life has gone hand in hand with a narrowing of the rhetoric through which U.S. culture talks about the role of guns and shootings. Insanity in the aftermath of mass shootings then becomes the only politically safe place to discuss charged issues such as gun violence prevention or strategies for public safety."

— Max Fisher https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html

Some experts theorize that the diversion to blame mental illness for mass shootings is pushed by the gun industry. The response to these events is to state a need for improved mental health treatment, which, though better access to care is needed in our country, it won't solve the problem of gun violence. Many psychologists agree that this is an ineffective solution, and perhaps distracts from chances to find a solution that could reduce gun violence.

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