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Race of mass shooters influences how the media cover their crimes, new study shows

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The Conversation

File 20180724 194158 nhzaa3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
If a news report mentions a shooter’s tough childhood, chances are he’s white.
ASAG Studio

Laura Frizzell, The Ohio State University; Sadé L. Lindsay, The Ohio State University, and Scott Duxbury, The Ohio State University

On Jan. 24, 2014, police found Josh Boren, a 34-year-old man and former police officer, dead in his home next to the bodies of his wife and their three children. The shots were fired execution-style on Boren’s kneeling victims, before he turned the gun on himself.

On Aug. 8, 2015, 48-year-old David Ray Conley shot and killed his son, former girlfriend and six other children and adults at his former girlfriend’s home. Like Boren, Conley executed the victims at point-blank range.

Both men had histories of domestic violence and criminal behavior. Yet despite the obvious similarities in these two cases and perpetrators, the media, in each case, took a different approach.

When describing Boren, the media focused on his good character and excellent parenting, going as far to call Boren a big “teddy bear” despite a prolonged history of domestic violence. They attributed his crime to “snapping” under the significant stress of his wife’s recent divorce filing.

In Conley’s case, media reports made little attempt to include any redeeming aspects of his personality. Instead, they focused exclusively on Conley’s history of domestic violence and prior drug possession charges. If you were to read articles about Conley, you would likely infer his crime stemmed from his inherently dangerous and controlling personality.

What might explain the differences in media coverage? Could it have something to do with the shooter’s race?

Boren, it turns out, was white; Conley was black.

In a recent study, we explored whether the race of mass shooters influences how the media depict their crime, their motivations and their lives.

We found that the discrepancies in the media coverage of Boren’s and Conley’s crimes were indicative of a broader phenomenon.

Explaining the crime, portraying the criminal

For the study, we randomly selected 433 online and print news articles covering 219 mass shootings from 2013 to 2015. While definitions of a mass shooting can vary, we adhered to the one most commonly used in empirical research: an event in which four or more people are shot, excluding the shooter.

Next, we created a unique data set based on information provided in the articles. We coded each article for a variety of variables associated with the crime and the shooter, including setting of the shooting, number and gender of victims killed and injured and age of the shooter.

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After analyzing the data, we found that the shooter’s race could strongly predict whether the media framed him as mentally ill. (Less than 1 percent of the crimes had a female perpetrator.)

In all, about 33 percent of the articles in our study describing the crimes of a white shooter made a mention of mental illness. On the other hand, 26 percent of articles describing a Latino shooter and only two percent of articles describing a black shooter mentioned mental illness.

In fact – holding all aspects of the crime equal – white shooters were nearly 95 percent more likely to have their crimes attributed to mental illness than black shooters. Latino shooters were 92 percent more likely than black shooters to have mental illness mentioned as a factor.

An empathy gap

Furthermore, those articles that did describe a white shooter as mentally ill would often suggest that the shooter had been a generally good person who was a victim of society. The shooting, in other words, was out of character.

For example, in one case, a shooter in a rural trailer park set up a rifle in some bushes and began firing at the family trailer, with his wife, father-in-law and two young children inside. When the police arrived, he turned the rifle on them, hitting two officers before they gunned him down.

Yet subsequent news coverage noted his generally quiet demeanor and his willingness to help family and friends. The man who committed these crimes, one article noted, “wasn’t the same person who loved back-porch cookouts.”

However, such narratives – even within articles that mentioned mental illness – were less common when the shooter was black or Latino.

The graph below includes all news articles in our sample that framed a shooting as stemming from mental illness.

The chart shows the proportion of thematic narratives by race within the mental illness subsample.

Nearly 80 percent of articles that described white shooters as mentally ill also described them as a victim of society and circumstance – a tough childhood, a failed relationship or financial struggles.

However only one article that described a black shooter as mentally ill did the same. Furthermore, no article in our sample offered testimony to black shooters’ good character, suggested that the shooter was from a good environment or that the shooting was out of character. Across the board, roughly the same pattern played out with perpetrators who were Latino.

Why does this matter?

Media coverage actively shapes how we perceive reality.

It seems as if media outlets tend to cast the violent acts of white criminals as unfortunate anomalies of circumstance and illness. For black shooters (and, to a lesser extent, Latino shooters) media outlets render their crimes with a brush of inherent criminality.

This isn’t to say that crimes shouldn’t be fully examined and that personal hardships and society don’t play a role. But if the circumstances of one group’s crimes are being explained in an empathetic way, and another group’s crimes aren’t given the same level of care and attention, we wonder whether this can insidiously influence how we perceive huge swaths of the population – criminal or not.

Laura Frizzell, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University; Sadé L. Lindsay, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University, and Scott Duxbury, PhD Student in Sociology, The Ohio State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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2 Comments on Race of mass shooters influences how the media cover their crimes, new study shows

  1. dhfabian // July 27, 2018 at 1:15 pm //

    No, people overwhelmingly have the impression that all mass shooters are white, and as such, are also racist.

  2. Tab Tabberts // July 27, 2018 at 6:08 pm //

    The researchers’ conclusion appears to be that the reason for their findings is a lack of empathy for non-white mass-shooters compared to white mass-shooters. Although the article doesn’t use the phrase, I think they mean that this is a result of racial prejudice in media reporting. However, the article didn’t mention any attempts by the researchers to rule out possible non-prejudicial explanations for the disparities they found. This increases the appearance that this study was biased in favor of finding racial prejudice because, as reported, it merely links correlation between race and reporting, and presumes racial prejudice to be the cause.
    For example, it would be helpful to know whether the researchers ruled out the following possibilities:
    Was there an actual higher incidence of mental illness among the white mass-shooters than the non-white mass-shooters in the reported cases?
    Is there a higher incidence of mental illness among whites than non-whites in the general population?
    Is there a lack of access to adequate mental health care for non-whites reducing the rate of detection of mental illness among non-whites?
    Do differences in economic circumstances between whites and non-whites exert economic pressures on more non-whites than whites, leading to a larger incidence of mass-shootings by non-whites who are not mentally ill?
    Perhaps the researchers have looked at these and other possibilities and ruled them out as potential alternative explanations, but their lack of mention in this article forces one to assume that the researchers did not do so and that their research was biased in favor of finding racial prejudice in media reporting where none or little may have actually been present. Further, there could be a lack of access to mental health care resources unfairly impacting non-whites. This could not only interfere with detection of mental illness in non-whites, and contribute to the media perception that non-white mass-shooters are more often naturally violent, but could also interfere with non-whites receiving treatment for mental illness, actually leading to more mass-shootings that could have been avoided. On the other hand, if whites for some reason generally suffer from mental illness more frequently, failure to address that problem would also needlessly lead to more otherwise preventable shootings. If the researchers’ conclusion was the result of bias toward finding racial prejudice in the media, they may have uncovered the root causes of some mass-shootings, but missed them in favor of attributing their findings to simple racial prejudice in media. This could represent a wasted opportunity to identify actual ways of reducing violent shootings and put them into practice.

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