Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘Newtown’

The media’s role in perpetuating gun killings

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science on December 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

This year the festive lead up to Christmas was dealt a savage blow with two events in the US that shed light on a particular area of scientific interest for me: mental health. These were the massacre of 26 people at Newtown in Connecticut and the killing of firemen responding to a call out in the upstate New York town of Webster. Both of these events brought to the fore, yet again, the issues of gun ownership and mental health.

More worryingly for me, they provided yet another opportunity for the media to play their role in perpetuating such tragic events. This can be seen in the recurring cycle of (mainstream) media coverage of mass shootings:

Initially the media busies itself with reporting on the bare bones of the event: what, when and where. After the initial shock the media tries to address the ‘who’ – ‘who was the killer’ – and the ‘why’ – ‘why did he do it?’ As expected, the typical phrase used in much of the media coverage in these particular shootings was that the perpetrators  – Adam Lanza at Newtown and William Spengler at Webster – had ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’.

I have a serious problem with this for several reasons that are part of this recurring cycle of tragedy and violence.

Firstly it redirects attention away from the critical issue of gun control, thereby helping absolve lawmakers from confronting the controversy. (A point worth considering here is the state of mind of anyone who wants to amass an arsenal of weaponry? Are they preparing to lead an invasion? Are they scared of being attacked by zombies?)

Secondly it provides ample opportunity for the wholly unqualified to comment on mental health issues. This gives the media the opportunity to dig up people who claim to have known the killers. These are often people all too ready to ‘diagnose’ ‘incriminating evidence’ of ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’ in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. Examples: a perfectly in-character Fox8 interview with a barber who used to cut Adam Lanza’s hair when he was a boy and the pathetic NewsOne’s search for motives by quoting Lanza’s former babysitter (bear in mind Lanza was 20 at the time of the shootings, and so I’d hazard a guess it would have been about 10-15 years since she last babysat for him!)

Thirdly, this encourages the media to highlight physical elements of a killer’s characteristic appearance as supposed ‘evidence’ of such mental health problems. For example that Lanza was ‘pale’ and ‘skinny’ or that he ‘often wore black’, or that Spengler was ‘wild-eyed’ and ‘dishevelled’. Additionally, elements of the character of a killer are isolated and highlighted for further supposed telltale signs of some mental health problems – the fact that they were ‘shy’ or ‘a loner’. By extension this draws unnecessary attention towards individuals who display similar character traits. If the comments point to certain sub-cultures – such as ‘goths’ or ‘nerds’ – it further stigmatises people who are drawn to those sub-cultures.

Fourthly, the media make sweeping statements about ‘mental health’, which is in fact an incredibly broad term for a developing science that covers a wide spectrum of issues, from common anxiety through depression to rare psychopathic behaviour. (By definition, if you are continually hampered by feelings of tension or worried thoughts about something, say inability to pay your debts, and you avoid certain situations out of worry, and you often experience sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat – sound familiar? – you’re displaying the classic symptoms of anxiety [adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology]. You may therefore have a ‘mental health issue’.)

By broadly labelling perpetrators of killings such as those at Newtown and Webster as ‘having mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’, and then colouring an incomplete picture with unqualified and unscientific anecdotal commentary, the media are not only guilty of bad journalism; they are injuring the developing science of psychology; and contributing to the further alienation of people who are part of ‘unconventional’ sub-cultures, and stigmatising those (many) people with mental health issues.

All they then need to do is to reach for rifle under the bed, and the cycle is repeated.