|Does one murder cause another murder?|
This is a difficult question to answer. The most recent study examining whether or not there was an increase in homicide or suicide rates following a publicized mass murder is from 1989. In his study, Steven Stack from Auburn University examined data from 1968-1980. He looked specifically at mass murders that had been publicized in the media, and he then examined subsequent rates of homicide and suicide.
What he found was that publicized mass murders followed by suicide (i.e. a gunman shoots a bunch of people and then kills himself) led to a significant increase in the general suicide rate following the incident. However, the homicide rate was not affected by mass murder followed by suicide.
Dr. Stack also discovered that publicized mass murders that did not end in suicide showed no increase in subsequent homicide or suicide rates.
One might conclude from Dr. Stack's data that hyping mass murder in the news will not cause an increase in any type of lethal aggression.
But, the world has changed in the last 20 years. In 1989, the 24 news networks were just getting started, and traditional media only had a limited amount of time to discuss mass murders. The public was exposed to very little information about these murders for very little time.
Today's publicized mass murders and mass murder/suicides are a different story. The two recent killings in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Park, Wisconsin have generated a tremendous amount of news coverage. It is no longer enough to talk about the facts of the case. With hundreds of hours of time to fill, news agencies start speculating about motives, they hypothesize about the mind of the killer, and they interview anyone they can find. Social media picks up the ball and runs with it.
Basically, society is bombarded by information about the killings for weeks at a time. I first noticed this at the time of the Columbine murders, and it seems worse today. We then hear reports of "copycat killers" who shoot up their own schools or try to bring guns to their movie theaters. Is it even a coincidence that the mass murder in Wisconsin took place only a few weeks after the mass murder in Aurora? Was the Wisconsin shooter encouraged to act by the media hype surrounding the Aurora shooting?
There is only limited evidence that there is an increase in violence following a publicized mass murder. In a study from 2009, there was shown to be an increase in domestic violence in the days after news reports about domestic violence. In 1978, there was a study showing an increase in private airplane crashes after publicized mass murder. That is about as close as we can get right now to proving the media may be stoking the fires of aggression.
This is an important issue to consider: is today's 24/7 media coverage of mass murders making the problem worse? Just like we need to consider changes to our mental healthcare delivery system, our gun control laws, and a host of other issues, we need to think about whether the media might be able to do something differently to prevent future tragedies.
Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.
Stack, S. (1989).