Saturation Coverage of Mass Shootings Can Have a Downside

07/21/2012 03:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2012

A Wholly Legitimate Topic For Media Analysis

Every time a mass killing takes place investigators, the public and the media rightly analyze the characteristics and motives for such horrendous losses of life. These are unusual, but newsworthy events, and part of the fear that arises is not merely from the coverage alone, but because they occur in an explosive, random or sudden manner in situations and places where people have an expectation of safety and calm. However, at some point some of the saturation coverage of an emerging, but limited amount of perpetrator information, coupled with the hyper repetitive recount of gratuitous violence results in serious diminishing returns to the public.

Undeniably, it is a totally legitimate story to probe the backgrounds of these killers, most of whom are acting on a combination of personal failures, rejections and frustration, social and psychological isolation, revenge, depression and in a smaller number of cases insanity. Furthermore, analyzing the circumstances of these events can legitimately assist those who seek to prevent or mitigate the effects of such attacks in the future. However, the real downside is not only that we may very well be glorifying the most contemptible among us; we may also be further traumatizing some of the victims even before they get proper psychological counseling. The primary topic of this blog post, however, is that we may be disproportionately amplifying the fears that the public holds about such brutal, but unusual events.

Fear Can Be Amplified by a Lack of Context

Mass shootings, those that involve 4 or more homicides, have been in the modern public eye since regular nightly news broadcasts brought the horror of Charles Joseph Whitman's killing of 16 people from his perch at University of Texas tower in August 1966. However, the risks to the public from such events relative to other crimes or routine life events are simply miniscule.

A study by Scripps Howard News Service showed that there were 965 such incidents resulting in 4,685 deaths from 1980-2008 or about 167 per year. To put this in perspective, homicide levels nationally are at multi decade lows. There were 14,748 murders and non-negligent homicides in 2010 alone, an astronomically high level compared to the rest of the industrialized world to be sure, but the lowest since 1968, when the American population was far smaller. To put this in further perspective the "murder rate" in 1980 was 10.2 per/100,00 inhabitants compared to just 4.8 in 2010. In 2010 67.5 percent of these homicides involved firearms, the overwhelming majority -- 6,009 -- being handguns. Shotguns and rifles were responsible for 373 and 358 deaths in a nation of about 310 million. Mass shootings, even relative to homicides are small in number.

While these mass killings are terrible, like large commercial plane crashes or hate crimes, the intense coverage of these events may unintentially create the perception that the risk is far greater than it actually is. Even with multi-year declines the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2009 was 33,800, compared to 44,600 in 1990, possibly due to an increase in the ubiquity of airbags and a crackdown on drunk driving. Unfortunately, traffic deaths soared 13.5 percent in the first quarter of this year to 7,630 people.

Still, the Center for Disease Control reports that 10,839 people or 32 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in 2009 involved drivers who were alcohol impaired, resulting in about 30 deaths a day or one every 48 minutes. In addition, there were 1.4 million drivers arrested that year for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The number of other deaths through more routine causes is worth noting, as well.

Number of deaths for leading causes of death:
• Heart disease: 599,413
• Cancer: 567,628
• Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353
• Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,842
• Accidents (unintentional injuries): 118,021
• Alzheimer's disease: 79,003
• Diabetes: 68,705
• Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,692
• Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,935
• Intentional self-harm (suicide): 36,909

The public and the media has a right to fully examine newsworthy events about unusual and horrendous crimes and much of the coverage has been excellent. However, with hundreds of millions of trips to the movies each year, the public is at far greater risk of being killed by a drunk driver on the way home than they are by a deranged stranger who has unfortunately monopolized the national spotlight. That is a message that needs to be broadcast as well.