Why did a shooter in Virginia kill two journalists on Wednesday and film himself doing it? One possible reason: He wanted the attention.
That's an explanation given by University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times:
In a further grotesque twist, the killer filmed the episode and posted his first-person shooter video on social media. "See Facebook," he tweeted, directing readers to the video that he also posted on Twitter, and which auto-played on many streams as people shared the posts.
This is probably exactly what the shooter, who took two lives and then his own on Wednesday in Virginia, was hoping for in his engineering of mass media and viral infamy. And he is not the only one.
What if other potential mass killers share the desire for that kind of attention? Could they, after seeing the widespread media coverage of Wednesday's Virginia shooting, be inspired to carry out their own violent acts?
This isn't an unfounded fear. A July study published in the journal PLOS One found "significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past" — characterizing mass shootings as "contagious." And this seemed to be true only for events in which four or more people are killed, according to the study — "possibly indicating that the much higher frequency of such events compared with mass killings and school shootings reduces their relative sensationalism, and thus reduces their contagiousness."
Tufekci referenced previous research with similar findings:
After studying 160 "active shooter" events over the past decade, with access to information beyond what the public knows, Andre Simons, of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, concluded that "the copycat phenomenon is real." When the FBI report summarizing the research was released in 2014, he said: "We think we're seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks."
There's good reason to believe that this also applied specifically to the Virginia shooter. A 23-page manifesto, faxed to ABC News by someone claiming to be the shooter, praised other mass shooters — commenting on their kill "tally" and how one of them did a better job killing people than others. It's a callous disregard for human life, but it's also suggestive of what the Virginia shooter was after.
How the media might be able to help — and when it might not be able to
The media needs to cover these events — they're important to public safety, and readers really care about them. These shootings can highlight the need for new laws and policies, such as gun control. And Katherine Newman, co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, told CNN that coverage of shootings can encourage students and adults to come forward with information about suspicious people.
"While there's a spike in shootings following an incident, there's an even bigger spike in reported plots," Newman said. "This is because people are vigilant and come forward with their suspicions and concerns."
So how can the press cover these events and not give killers the attention they may crave?
There's no easy answer. One start would be to not share the alleged gunmen's own videos and images — as thousands of people (and some media outlets) did after the suspected shooter posted footage of the shooting on Twitter and Facebook. And the media could avoid publishing pictures of the killers or showing their faces at all: Explain the events and what happened, but leave the shooter's identity out of it.
Sometimes this might not bet the best option, though. In cases where the alleged shooter is still out there — as the Virginia suspect was for several hours after the killing — sharing any video or pictures can help catch the perpetrator. After a man in June shot and killed nine people in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the North Carolina florist who tipped off police to his whereabouts said she recognized the shooter's distinctive haircut from pictures in news reports.
Still, some people will continue to post the names and pictures of shooters — even after they are captured or killed — and many in the public will keep Googling these details. There's always going to be a demand, and someone will satisfy it.
But major outlets could make a difference. If the images and names of mass killers are confined to the buried pages of Google instead of the front page of the New York Times, they're going to get way less notoriety — and shooters will know it. That may not happen anytime soon, but it's worth a thought.