Mass Murder and the Mass Media: An Examination of the Media Discourse on U.S. Rampage Shootings, 2000-2012
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Nearly as soon as the first shot is fired, the news media already are rushing to break coverage of rampage shooting events, the likes of which typically last days or, in the more extreme cases, weeks. Though rampage shootings are rare in occurrence, the disproportionate amount of coverage they receive in the media leads the public to believe that they occur at a much more regular frequency than they do. Further, within this group of specialized events, there is a greater tendency to focus on those that are the most newsworthy, which is categorized most often by those with the highest body counts. This biased presentation can lead to a number of outcomes, including fear of crime, behavioral changes, and even copycat attacks from other, like-minded perpetrators.
Following the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the news media have compartmentalized different types of mass shootings. This fracturing has led to differential understanding of school shootings, workplace shootings, shootings at religious centers, and other mass shootings taking place in public forums (e.g., malls, movie theaters). In reality, there are few differences between these events, yet for some reason, they are covered differently. The result is not only a vast public misconception about them, but ineffective and redundant policies and legislation related to gun control and mental health, among other issues.
In order to understand how the public comes to understand rampage shooting events, one must first understand how the stories are constructed by the media. This project seeks to undertake such a task by examining the social construction of rampage shootings that occurred between 2000 and 2012. In addition to understanding how these events are constructed both individually and as the phenomenon of rampage shootings, it enables the researcher to examine how this construction changes over time. As the media are by no means static, one could predict that the framing of these events would be equally as dynamic.
There are a number of benefits to uniting different types of mass shootings under a single definition. First, topical research can be approached from multiple disciplines, which will allow for a more robust body of research. This can, in turn, lead to more streamlined and effective legislation and policies. Finally, understanding rampage shootings as episodic violent crime is beneficial because it allows for these events to be understood in the greater context of violent crime. This understanding ultimately can lead to more responsible journalistic practices, which can help to reduce the outcomes of fear and crime and moral panics over events that are both rare and isolated.
This dissertation takes an important first step in understanding rampage shootings by examining them as a product of the news media. Berger and Luckmann’s social construction theory provides a theoretical orientation through which to understand how these stories are constructed in the media, and Altheide and Schneider’s (2013) qualitative media analysis provides a framework in which the content can be analyzed. A total of 91 cases were examined, representing rampage shootings that occurred in the first 12 years following Columbine. The overall findings of the study indicate that the coverage of these shootings consistently relied on Columbine as a cultural referent, that the media are used as a tool by claims makers pushing their personal agendas, and that the disproportionality of coverage in the media and its related content is highly problematic when considering public perceptions of these events. Limitations of the study, as well as avenues for future research, also are discussed.