When a story about a mass shooting is reported, does the coverage inadvertently feed celebrity status to the perpetrator? Six months following the deadly attack at Sandy Hook Elementary, John Parry 2014 wants to know the extent to which major online news publishers unintentionally granted notoriety to the shooter.
Interested in discovering the Internet’s changing role in news coverage, Parry looks specifically at text articles about the shooting published from the day of the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 through Dec. 16, 2012.
“Following the Sandy Hook shooting, media critics and lay theorists argued that media coverage encouraged mass murder by granting the perpetrators notoriety,” says Parry. “For my research, news (stories) was selected to provide a blend of legacy media published online and online-exclusive content, in an attempt to reflect the variety of what Internet users typically read.” Among the things he is looking at are the frequency of the killer’s name, photo, and details of his personal life, and how prominently that information appears in the online articles.
“John’s research is important because it helps us understand the power of media,” says Kirstie E. Hettinga, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Media & Communication Studies. “In today’s culture, we are constantly bombarded with information and scholars need to look into how this intensely media-saturated world affects audiences. John’s content analysis is a first step in exploring the kind of coverage an event like Sandy Hook receives and future research—which I think he plans to pursue—will look at the reach and impact of such coverage.”
The more instances the perpetrator’s name and photo appear, and the closer to the top of the news page they appear, the more notoriety he gains from the coverage, Parry theorizes. A better tactic, he says, would be for information about the assailant to be reported further down in the articles’ text. Articles listing the death toll or including information about the killer further serve to cement his or her place as criminal celebrity. “I’ll analyze content and conduct many of the same measurements for the victims, in order to compare the amount of coverage for each,” says Parry. His guess? Earlier coverage will emphasize the death and injury toll, the shooter’s motive (or lack thereof), and police or eyewitness accounts of the events. Later coverage, he says, will focus more on the victims.
“What I expect to find is that the body count was featured way too prominently, no matter what the focus of the article was,” he says. “I think I was half-right about the attention paid to the victims–few are named in the articles on the first day, and therefore there tends to be less discussion of the victims in general. I think this has to do with the fact that the list of victims wasn’t made public until day two. Many outlets published the full list on the second and third days, but there’s actually less discussion of the victims on the third day. This is consistent with previous research on Columbine, which suggested that stories about victims and those affected slowly declined as time went on, in favor of articles about gun control or school safety.”
In general, his research should alleviate some concern about the killer’s notoriety, says Parry. “I would guess that somewhere around a third of the articles didn’t mention the shooter’s name at all. Many more mentioned it once, toward the end of the article. The big caveat, and something that I hope to address with a possible honors project, is that we can’t account for how much reach each article had. For example, articles that mentioned the shooter’s name might have received twice as many hits on average as articles that didn’t, and so we need to look at notoriety from that perspective, too. The popularity of a given online article depends on the audience, of course, because they’re the ones sharing it via email, instant messaging, and social media, but the publisher also has a role, because the content they post on the front page will be viewed more often.”
As his research period for the summer comes to a close, Parry says he discovered that he enjoys primary research. “Summer Fellows has been the perfect opportunity for me to devote time to it. I’m also honored to spend time with Dr. Hettinga.”