Media headlines dangerously sensationalize Parkland gunman's guilty plea

Media headlines irresponsibly sensationalized the guilty plea of the Parkland, Florida, gunman by repeatedly publishing both his picture and his name, despite well-known evidence that this type of coverage can have potentially deadly consequences.

On October 20, the gunman in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. The guilty plea was a reversal for the defendant, who did not make a plea when the trial initially began in 2019; the judge had entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. A jury will be assembled in January 2022 to determine if the suspect will receive the death penalty or life in prison. 

Media 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.” Multiple studies have documented the link between excessive media coverage and mass shootings, and experts have urged media not to publish names and photos of mass shooters. According to criminologist Adam Lankford, who has studied the contagion effect, “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.”  

The No Notoriety campaign, founded in 2012 after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, encourages the media not to give shooters the infamy they often seek. The movement began gaining attention after there was a string of public mass shootings, including the one in Parkland. 

NBC Miami’s article about the guilty pleas is an example of an outlet adhering to the campaign’s guidelines; there was no name in the headline, subhead, or lede sentence, and no photo of the shooter either. The article included only a video of the guilty plea and his name in the second paragraph. 

However, far too many articles from national outlets -- including The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Hill -- failed to meet this standard and put both the Parkland gunman’s name and photo in their articles (we’ve blurred them in our images here). While they made a mild improvement in skipping a photo, too many other national outlets still published the gunman’s full name in their headline. NBC News went as far as to include a seemingly sympathetic quote from the gunman as a caption to a video of his guilty plea. 

NBC News, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press also all included the name or a photo of the gunman in tweets promoting their coverage.   

The contagion effect generated by intensive coverage of mass shooters has been well-documented. Researchers have attributed it to one of the reasons mass shootings often occur in “clusters.” 

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. 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 plots and attacks, with many hailing the gunmen as “heroes” and “martyrs” and some attempting to outdo their body count. The effect was so strong that it was dubbed the Columbine effect.  

Though this specific story was about the gunman’s guilty plea, media should and do know better than to publish his name, photo, or statements, which serves only to give shooters the attention they want and potentially encourage others who are prone to violence to copy them.