PBS’ Frontline irresponsibly ignores the “media contagion effect” and gives notoriety to school shooters

A PBS Frontline documentary on the history of the National Rifle Association and the recent investigations into allegations of its financial impropriety dangerously and irresponsibly ignored the potential for copycat massacres when it aired personal video footage from school shooters.

On March 24, PBS aired the nearly hourlong documentary NRA Under Fire, which chronicled the pro-gun group’s shift from an organization focused on hunting and firearms instruction in the 1960s to a pro-Second Amendment special interest group that has lobbied to defeat any gun safety legislation in Congress, even in the aftermath of horrific mass shootings like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. PBS juxtaposed the NRA’s activities against the protests and activism that took place following the Parkland school shooting. 

The documentary included two clips from personal footage of mass shooters, opening with a 32-second clip of the 19-year-old Parkland gunman speaking into what appears to be his phone’s camera on the day of the rampage. Set to ominous background music, the clip includes him saying that “with the power of my AR, you will all know who I am.” 

A little over 12 minutes into the documentary, PBS showed what it called “home videos” of the attackers before the 1999 Columbine High School shooting with their weapons. The clip showed the two gunmen in what appears to be a forest clearing in Colorado, practicing with the “arsenal” they had collected.  

While PBS did include a “viewer discretion advised” disclaimer at the beginning of the documentary, including those two clips of the gunmen ignores what law enforcement and mental health professionals refer to as the “media contagion effect.” In a 2016 paper presented at the American Psychological Association annual conference, authors Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy found that one of the most common traits of mass shooters is “pathological narcissism” and urged mass media to no longer show “the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers” in an effort to reduce the contagion effect behind copycat massacres.   

In 2015, researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University confirmed that up to 30% of mass shootings are set off by other massacres. 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.” Adam Lankford, a criminology professor, told NBC News that it’s possible to cover a mass shooting without showing the photographs or names of the gunmen and “said the news media contributes to mass shootings by offering suspects fame, perversely rewarding higher casualty counts with splashier coverage and inadvertently inspiring copycats.”    

The Columbine school shooting in particular sparked at least 74 known plots or attacks, and plotters in at least 13 cases “indicated that their goal was to outdo the Columbine body count.” The contagion phenomenon after Columbine, which received quite a bit of media attention, was so strong it became known as the “Columbine effect.” 

The movement to discourage media from profiling mass shooters has been gaining momentum ever since No Notoriety, a group encouraging media not to glamorize the gunmen or give them saturated coverage, was founded in 2012 after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. The movement started receiving high-profile media attention following a string of public mass shootings, especially Parkland. Considering the protests following the Parkland shooting were prominently featured in the new Frontline documentary, PBS should have known better than to show those two clips.

While accurately covering mass shootings will undoubtedly require some very difficult-to-watch content that is necessary to inform the viewers, showing personal footage of the gunmen does nothing to educate the viewer -- but it may be inspiring the next shooter.