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Very Real

What Makes A Mass Shooting Newsworthy? Age, Ethnicity Figure Hugely

Young, Middle Eastern and in the Northeast? A new study looks at how factors like age, casualties and ethnicity affect media coverage.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

Out of last year's 346 mass shootings, how many actually made it into the national conversation? What makes a mass shooting newsworthy? 

In a study of The New York Times’ coverage of 314 mass shootings between 1996 to 2016, researchers Jason R. Silva and Joel A. Capellan found that the average mass shooting looked different from the public idea of the norm — all due to an imbalance in media coverage. For instance, even though 60.6% of those who commit mass shootings are white, Middle Eastern shooters generally receive more coverage. Though the average age of those who commit mass shootings is 35, perpetrators who are younger are more likely to receive news coverage, as are those who are “ideologically motivated.”

Naturally, higher rates of casualties also contributed to the likelihood of coverage. The odds of a mass shooting attracting news coverage increases by 144% for every additional fatality, and 25% for every additional injured victim. Weapons matter, too — offenders who use a combination of firearms are 187% as likely to be presented in the news than those who committed the attacks with handguns, according to the study.

In terms of location, shootings at schools, government institutions, religious institutions, and open spaces were given more coverage than those at a place of business. Specifically, school shootings were 255% more likely to be covered than incidents that occurred in office settings. Geographically, public shootings in the west and the south get significantly less news coverage than the northeast.

Silva and Capellan found that the majority of mass public shooting incidents receive little to no coverage: public knowledge of mass shootings is based on less than 1% of the incidents that occur. This means that high-profile mass shootings are more likely to influence the public’s understanding of such events — even if they’re not the norm.

For example, the excessive coverage that young mass shooters receive leads to heightened fears of “alienated youth,” even though, in reality, the age range of those who commit mass shootings is wide. The same can be said of offenders who are Middle Eastern: they are overrepresented as perpetrators, perhaps as a result of post-9/11 fears of terrorism.

Silva and Capellan’s findings have safety implications: workplace shootings, the most common type, do not receive the same level of coverage. The same safety precautions that have made their way into government and school buildings have not made their way to the majority of workplaces yet.

When it comes to mass shootings, it seems that what we read isn't necessarily representative of reality.

(Newspaper headlines at a subway kiosk in Brooklyn, New York comment on President Donald Trump's suggestion about arming school teachers on February 23, 2018 following the mass shooting deaths of 17 Florida students on February 14, 2018. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)