As mass shootings become mind-numbingly common in the U.S., clear patterns have emerged in the way the media covers the perpetrators of these violent acts.
Not only do shooters command more attention than the lives they’ve taken, but there are clear racial disparities in the way the media—particularly cable news—portrays them. The contrast between the way the Philadelphia Inquirer described the Las Vegas gunman (that he enjoyed a “quiet life” of gambling and country music) and the way the New York Times wrote about “no angel” Michael Brown—the victim of police brutality—is staggering.
Quartz, using a list of mass shootings maintained by Mother Jones, analyzed 141 hours of news coverage from six cable-news stations to see what patterns emerged based on the killers’ backgrounds. The outlet focused on the two days immediately following each mass shooting.
Here’s what it found out.
As Quartz notes, the term “lone wolf” comes from the FBI, which used the term “solely to denote a terrorist” in the early ’90s. Among the law-enforcement community, the phrase was used strictly for terrorist attacks committed by one person.
The media doesn’t practice this amount of fidelity—and as many have noticed, the term is over-applied to white shooters, like the gunman who opened fire on concertgoers in Las Vegas. The phrase has been criticized for glorifying gunmen in a way that “lone shooter” or “lone gunman” does not.
Quartz found that white shooters were far more likely to be referred to as “lone wolves” versus nonwhite shooters, who were more likely to be referred to as “lone gunman,” or as “act[ing] alone.”
Another difference Quartz found was in the coverage of the killers’ families. Out of 27 mass shootings, cable-news outlets were far more likely to mention the family members of white killers than those of nonwhite attackers. These references could be quotes or interviews with the killers’ relatives, and are significant because they often have the effect of humanizing the attacker.
The only exception to the rule were the killers’ wives. In those instances, the media was more likely to reference a nonwhite shooter’s wife.
It will come as little surprise that white shooters are rarely described as being radicalized, or as having committed an act of “terrorism.”
The word “radical” was not mentioned once in the 11 of 27 incidents in which the killers were identified as white, but it appeared 33 times when nonwhite killers were involved.
Similarly, “terrorism” was mentioned four times more frequently in mass shootings involved nonwhite killers than those with white killers.
When explaining a killer’s motivations, Quartz found that cable coverage did include the phrase “hate crime” far more in coverage of white shooters than nonwhite ones. But it’s important to note that 44 of the 48 times the phrase was counted was in reference to Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church. In that case, Roof had literally written a manifesto expressing pages and pages of racial hatred.
One of the biggest takeaways for media outlets, and one that, frankly, isn’t discussed nearly enough, is the contagion effect that media coverage can have after a shooting. Each year a dreadful new peak is reached as another mass shooting becomes labeled the “deadliest” in American history. Not only has this been historically inaccurate, but using the superlative could inspire future attacks.
This is particularly true when a killer’s name and photo are shared widely, as was the case with the Las Vegas shooting earlier this month. In fact, one expert told Quartz that if news outlets refused to name the perpetrators, one-third of future shootings wouldn’t happen.
Read more at Quartz.