The three largest cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC — irresponsibly sensationalized the New York City subway gunman by excessively airing his photos and videos in the aftermath of this month's mass shooting, despite well-documented evidence that this type of coverage can have deadly consequences by encouraging copycat attacks.
On April 12, a 62-year-old gunman set off smoke grenades and opened fire inside a subway car in Brooklyn, hitting 10 people. While no one was killed, a total of 29 people suffered injuries related to the incident. After a 31-hour manhunt, the gunman was arrested when he called into the FBI tip line himself.
The New York City Police Department confirmed the gunman was in custody during an April 13 press conference that aired during the 2 p.m. EDT hour, thanking the media for repeatedly showing his photo while he was still at large.
However, in the six hours after his arrest was announced, cable news networks needlessly aired more photos of the gunman at least 31 times, according to a review by Media Matters. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC each individually showed his photos, including his previous mugshot and screen grabs from his YouTube videos. Fox even ran a special chyron with his photo above the word “captured” for entire segments.
News outlets have long been advised not to give excessive or sensationalized coverage to mass shooters in order to avoid what’s known as “the contagion effect.” Generated by intense media coverage, researchers have said this effect can explain why mass shootings often occur in clusters. Multiple studies have also documented the link between excessive media coverage and mass shootings.
In a 2016 paper presented at the American Psychological Association's annual conference, authors Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy found that one of the most common traits of mass shooters is “pathological narcissism” and urged media to no longer show “the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers” in an effort to reduce the contagion effect. Criminologist Adam Lankford explained, “Many of these at-risk individuals recognize that murdering large numbers of men, women, or children will guarantee them fame. … And unfortunately, they are right.”
Despite this overwhelming evidence, cable news on April 13 aired b-roll video footage of the gunman entering the subway or being taken into custody at least 29 times following his arrest, according to Media Matters' review. In fact, Fox News cut away from an unrelated interview just to catch a glimpse of the gunman being escorted to a police car.
In 2015, researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University confirmed that up to 30% of mass shootings are set off by other attacks. After the back-to-back August 2019 shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, researchers at the nonpartisan think tank The Violence Project “found that among the things mass shooters have in common is that they had studied past killers.”
As of 2019, the 1999 Columbine shooting — which received quite a bit of media coverage — influenced over 100 other plots and attacks, with many hailing the gunmen as “heroes” and “martyrs” and some attempting to outdo their body count.
Media should and do know better. In 2012, a group called No Notoriety was created after the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting in order to encourage the media not to give mass gunmen saturated coverage. Instead, mass media has engaged in saturated coverage after the UNCC school shooting in 2019, the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, and the Parkland gunman’s guilty plea several months later in October 2021.
This type of coverage, which temporarily transforms the gunman into a kind of celebrity, does nothing to inform cable news viewers - but it very well may be educating the next mass shooter.