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Fame-seeking mass shooters get more media coverage, study finds

Is it time media outlets stop publishing the names and photographs of mass shooters?

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  • The study examined mass shootings from 1966 to 2018, finding that shootings have become more common and more deadly since 2000.
  • The results showed that fame-seeking mass shooters received significantly higher media coverage than their counterparts, with 97 percent of fame-seeking mass shooters getting a mention from the New York Times.
  • Recent research shows connections between the amount of media coverage on mass shootings and their likelihood to occur shortly after.


Mass shooters who seek fame tend to receive more media coverage than other shooters, according to new research that sheds light on an ongoing debate over how journalists should cover mass shootings.

The study, published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior, examined mass shootings in the U.S. from 1966 to 2018 and did not include police shootings, gang- and drug-related shootings, or those involving domestic violence. The researchers defined "fame-seeking" shooters by looking at the shooters' own manifestos, online profiles, police documents, suicide notes, and videos.

In addition to highlighting the fact that mass shootings have become more common and more deadly since 2000, the results showed that fame-seeking shooters received a disproportionate amount of media attention, with about 96 percent of them receiving at least one mention in the New York Times, compared to 74 percent of shooters who apparently weren't seeking fame.

"Fame-seeking shooters incur high victim counts, and receive disproportionately higher levels of media coverage. As such, the media is reinforcing their initial motivations, and potentially contributing to copycat criminality," study author Jason R. Silva, an assistant professor at William Paterson University, told PsyPost.

"While the 'No Notoriety' campaign and 'Don't Name Them' movement have been vital for reducing attention to perpetrators — and focusing on victims — there is still a need for further understanding of responsible reporting of mass shootings."

"When you see me on the news you'll know who I am"

These are words spoken by the person who killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

Journalists, media critics, and the public have for years debated over how to cover mass shootings: Should shooter's be named? Their photographs revealed? How much coverage is too much? These are ethical questions that weigh several broad interests. First, beyond morbid curiosity, there's the public's interest in learning about what kind of person could be capable of carrying out such violence. But against that are valid concerns about the fact that covering mass shootings might lead to more people to commit them, as recent research has suggested. And finally, of course, there's a profit motive: People will reliably consume media about mass shooters, which makes money for media outlets.

In weighing these interests (or, more cynically, considering only the third), the majority of news outlets have decided to name shooters and display their photographs.

"Many of these at-risk individuals recognize that murdering large numbers of men, women, or children will guarantee them fame," wrote Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama who has studied the contagion effect of mass shootings. "They believe their names and faces will adorn newspapers, television, magazines, and the internet — and unfortunately, they are right."

But even if journalists choose not to name mass shooters — as, for example, Anderson Cooper chooses not to do — that won't prevent others on the internet from spreading the personal information of fame-seeking shooters. For example, the men behind this year's mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, for example, both posted manifestos online shortly before the attacks, and their names were widely circulated around websites like Reddit and 8chan — as was a live-streamed video of one of the shootings.

With the internet, mass shooters will always have an avenue for achieving notoriety. But by choosing to limit coverage of mass shootings and the people who commit them, mainstream media can help make the stars of mass shooters shine a bit less brightly. If nothing else, news outlets could simply stop showing photos of mass shooters.

"I've never heard anyone offer a cogent argument as to why seeing the face of a mass shooter is somehow helpful information for understanding how to prevent the next one," Lankford told the Los Angeles Times.

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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