Media Coverage of Mass Killings – Prof Paul Mullen
Paul Mullen is Professor Emeritus at Monash University. Previously he was a consultant at the Maudsley and Bethlem Hospitals, Professor of Psychological Medicine in Dunedin, and Professor/Director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Psychiatry.
He has published over 200 papers in refereed journals, and co-authored several books on child sexual abuse, jealousy, and stalking.
Clinically, he was involved in assessing and managing mentally abnormal offenders. He has assessed a number of lone actor mass killers including some claiming to be politically motivated. He has also evaluated members of terrorist groups including at Guantanamo Bay.
These massacres and the killers are given extensive coverage in the media at the time…An ongoing existence for the killer is established in cyberspace and many acquire a ‘fan base’… …There are people who think they are models to be admired.
These things are getting more and more common, not just in the US but throughout the western world. In the 10 years after Whitman, there were probably about 20 of these events; in the last 10 years there have been over 500 and it’s been going up steadily in between. The number of people killed has also been going up, so each incident on average is resulting in more deaths and injuries than in the previous decade.
Prof Mullen introduces this section of his presentation with a story of Ernst Wagner (1913), his upbringing, and his life, which led to him being admitted to a psychiatric hospital with delusional disorder and paranoia, having killed several people including his wife and children.
He continues with an account of Norman List (1924) who killed and injured several women in Melbourne, and of Howard Unruh (1949). He tells how the case of Charles Whitman (1966) is very important in how he acquired fame through his actions and became the first to have a copy-cat killing by Bob Smith of the same year.
An academic view of how to address media coverage of mass killings
Historical records indicate that the mass random shooting was previously alien to western culture, yet established itself quickly and firmly after widespread access to television. Following the 1966 University of Texas killings, media organisations developed a communication script for the coverage of a mass random shooting. In seeking to frame their news coverage of this crime the questions Who? How? and Why? have been extensively and increasingly the focus of journalistic comment.This standard coverage supports a hypothesis that mass random killers may desire to kill as many people as required to achieve a level of infamy and, with that infamy, the news coverage the killer believes will follow.Mass random shootings, and the death toll they elicit, are not currently increasing in frequency but appear to have reached a steady state, given the current patterns of coverage . Yet the media attention paid to this crime continues to grow. The literature indicates that the way the media covers these events may be a major motivation for the crime itself.
Take Home Messages:
- Mass killers often acquire fame due to extensive media coverage.
- There are now recommendations by research academics on how to deal with the media problem and how killers obtain glorification from the exposure.
- Mass killings are still rare, but not trivial as the number of massacre events has increased steadily since 1966.
Greensmith GF, Green LR. Rethinking the reporting of the mass random shooting – or is it an autogenic massacre? Proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association conference: Rethinking communication, space and identity. 2015;1-10.