The Contagion Effect

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This week’s Philip Mongan doesn’t like to use the word “copycat” when it comes to mass shootings that reproduce earlier crimes. But recent studies suggest media coverage of these senseless acts play a role in what is called the “media contagion effect”. When you look at the headlines, does the news have a hand in these trends?

Let’s look under the hood of this phenomenon. In social psychology, behavioral “contagion” refers the tendency for certain behaviors demonstrated by one person to be imitated by observers. Exposure doesn’t have to happen in person — it can happen through a television, computer, or on the big screen.

When observers emulate behaviors, they do so out of a desire to escape “restraints,” as defined by behavioral psychologist Ladd Wheeler. These “restraints” are the unspoken rules that discourage or promote certain behaviors — once one person breaks these rules, anyone can follow suit.

William Amberg’s “Reading from Goethe’s ‘Werther'” (1870)

In other words, people are allowed to do something that is normally taboo when there is someone else to model after, following what may now be a social norm.

And here is where the line in the sand gets crossed. Once a behavior is modeled, anyone can imitate it whether or not the originator even intended to have someone else reproduce their actions.

In what is specifically called the “Werther effect,” behavioral contagion occurs even when fictional suicide is immortalized in literature and television. The name comes from the earliest known connection between media and suicide. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a slew of suicides among young men, imitating the titular character’s later death.  

More recently, the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” caused concerns of behavioral contagion after chronicling the tragic death of a fictional teenager, Hannah Baker, and her motivations behind taking her own life.

But, in the context of mass shootings and the media, let’s separate fact from fiction.

One study asserts that news coverage of mass shootings awakens particular desires and sentiments in people who are exposed to these offenses. However, that introduces something to consider — these motivations are inherent to the person. So, keep in mind that media coverage of violence does not spontaneously lead to murder—but may bolster criminal desires.

The study identifies two factors that influence potential shooters: a desire for fame and a lack of social capital. Observers of violence have a desire for the notoriety they see past perpetrators as having. They want to be elevated above the normal person—their name immortalized in news headlines, films, and television specials.

The NY Daily News faced criticism for politicizing their front page in the aftermath of San Bernardino shooting. (Twitter / NY Daily News)

Social capital is distinct in that it refers to the network of relationships these perpetrators have. In this week’s show, Mongan describes mass shooters as marginalized individuals, who have few relationships and perceive themselves as isolated from other people. In order to counteract this loss, they perform these crimes to gain fame and therefore, in their mind, have a surplus of social capital.

You can see why including the names of shooters in news headlines is bad. But is it good journalism to exclude these names?

A survey attempting to uncover the perceptions of media coverage of mass shootings accounted for journalists’ opinions in this issue. It showed that the journalists surveyed were in favor of how the perpetrator is displayed in the news. This includes a photo, statements and videos from the transgressor.

In news media, a sense of immediacy reigns as king, so it can prove hard for reporters to even consider the consequences of their work when a juicy headline is in their hands. Also, some believe the public is owed all the relevant information and may be an opportunity to prevent these senseless acts.

Numerous campaigns like No Notoriety have established a precedent to not give these individuals any more publicity.

Where does that leave journalism ethics? As we become more aware of the “contagion effect,” we should figure out exactly just how much weight a name can hold.


What do you think of publishing the names of mass shooters? Do you think the media should cover shootings differently? Leave your two cents in the comments below.