We’ve all heard it before: The shooter was insane, deranged, a madman. In the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, when the public wants to understand why paradegoers, shoppers or schoolchildren are left dead, blame often falls to “mental illness.” It’s an armchair diagnosis used by authorities and politicians to explain a shooter’s motives, which is sometimes parroted by the press.
That rhetoric, however, may have little evidentiary support. Researchers and mental health experts know what’s often behind mass shootings: hate.
“It is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred,” Rosie Phillips Davis, then-president of the American Psychological Association, said after the 2019 El Paso shooting that killed 23 mostly Latino Walmart shoppers. “The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic.”
The ties between violence and hate become more apparent with every mass shooting. The Buffalo shooter, who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in May, lifted details directly from white supremacist message boards and other racist and misogynist killers. The Uvalde shooter, who killed 19 students and two teachers 10 days later, repeatedly threatened teen girls online. The Fourth of July Highland Park shooter had a history of posting racist and antisemitic content.
While authorities have yet to confirm motives for the Uvalde or Highland Park shootings, coverage that doesn’t examine these issues is “allowing those who have committed these acts of extreme violence to escape meaningful culpability,” said Azza Altiraifi, a disabled policy researcher and organizer.
Mental illness has long been a scapegoat for mass shootings
Instead of hate, mental illness has historically been portrayed as the culprit of mass violence.
“Certain ‘facts’ enter the mainstream and then just simply get repeated over and over,” said science journalist Erin Biba, who was formerly a fact-checker at Wired.
One such “fact” is the assertion that mentally ill people are dangerous. However, only 5% of mass shootings involve perpetrators with severe mental illness. Yet from 1994 to 2014, 55% of 400 stories about mental illness were about dangerousness, and just 14% explored success in treatment or recovery.
In fact, mentally ill people are more of a risk to themselves than to others: Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. And not all these deaths involve mental health conditions; some are acts of desperation facilitated by easy access to firearms. Mentally ill people are also more likely to be victims than perpetrators. According to a Washington Post database comprised of news accounts, social media postings and police reports, at least one in five police shootings involved mentally ill people in 2020. Police are also more likely to shoot and kill unarmed Black men who show signs of mental illness than white men who do, according to an Annals of Epidemiology analysis last year. Mentally ill people, especially those who are also racialized, are at risk from the police and the public simultaneously, Altiraifi said.
Media coverage plays a significant role in perpetuating the “mentally ill are dangerous” stigma. In 2017, when then-President Donald Trump rejected a rule restricting gun ownership for Social Security recipients, multiple outlets reported that he made it easier for the mentally ill to get guns, even though it was much more complicated than that; these 75,000 beneficiaries who need help managing their benefits included people with eating disorders, cognitive impairments and depression.
Ultimately, operating on the assumption that mental health and violence are linked leads to subsequent poor sourcing and framing of stories, with a focus on mental health experts, not those who have experience in the rapid spread of hate.
When reporting, Biba said, she embraces an attitude of curiosity, assuming she knows nothing, approaching stories with caution. Failure to fact check and question whether the core belief that mental illness is the problem spills over to readers, who trust the media to provide them with accurate information driven by concrete research rather than cultural beliefs.
For guidance, look no further than the gold standard of ethics and style in journalism, the AP Stylebook, which clearly states reporters should not make unfounded claims about mental health. On Twitter in 2021, the news organization reminded journalists to: “Avoid unsubstantiated statements from witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not have mental illnesses.”
Why it’s important for reporters to call out hate
By underplaying hate’s role in the discussion about mass gun violence in the United States, it becomes harder to have a conversation about effective interventions and policy solutions — it’s akin to treating breast cancer with fungal cream. The proliferation of hateful content online and the role of message boards and other media in cultivating violence among primarily young white men is what merits more attention when it comes to mass shooters.
Perpetrators telegraph their hatred of certain groups online. Journalist Elad Nehorai, who focuses on extremism, said shooters may advertise their interest in committing mass violence, a warning sign that law enforcers have ignored on numerous occasions. They’re not necessarily members of groups but are radicalized in a more chaotic and individual way, through what Nehorai describes as a “marketing funnel” that starts with racist ideas like the “great replacement theory” espoused on conservative news channels and Facebook slowly filtering through to active engagement in smaller and closed communities. This funnel drives racist hatred, but also conspiracies like QAnon.
Media outlets, however, may be hesitant to attribute mass shootings to hate. While a reporter should never speculate, Biba said there’s a “well-established myth” that breaking stories like mass shootings are “too hard to fact check because it takes too long.” Such an attitude can drive fast-moving reporting that may not rely on verifiable facts because of the pressure of pushing updates as fast as possible. This applies to follow-up stories, too. Accurate reporting means looking around for the context clues: what can we verify about the killer, who were the targets, what is the history of this neighborhood and town, what are their demographic tensions, is there a local reporter who can support or lead on coverage? With the Highland Park shooting, for instance, some outlets were slow to report that the shooting took place in a neighborhood with a large Jewish population and the killer engaged in demonstrable antisemitic acts.
Failing to identify white supremacy and other forms of hate as the core driver of violence like that seen in Highland Park and Buffalo has serious consequences. Racism, misogyny, antisemitism, transphobia and other forms of hatred are already affecting the lives of millions of Americans: violence against trans women, especially Black and Latino, continues to steadily increase year after year; a study recently found that entire Black communities suffer trauma after police shootings and one-third of Asian Americans have changed their daily routines due to concerns about their safety. Underplaying their risks leaves communities vulnerable to mass violence.
How newsrooms can avoid the ‘crazy’ shooter trope
There are known fixes to stop this stigmatization. One refocuses coverage to the actual causes of mass violence, which includes a reckoning with the media’s own role in the normalization of hate in the United States. That means examining the value of “both sides” journalism (the idea that every story has two different perspectives that should be weighted equally), a failure to create affirming and welcoming environments for marginalized journalists (as of 2018, newsrooms were 77% white and 61% male) and a tolerance of factually inaccurate stories targeting marginalized communities (such as those presenting trans identity as a matter of debate).
Another is direct confrontation of stereotypes about mass violence — not just in the immediate aftermath, when public interest is high. Educating the public about the specifics of mental health and the real threats to our most vulnerable populations challenges readers to rethink what they know. Journalists have a responsibility to question lawmakers, experts and other sources they interact with about their beliefs, rather than accepting and reporting them as the truth. Actual mental health coverage, such as discussion of the critical shortage of mental health care in America, should be reserved for other, more appropriate contexts, such as legislative budget cuts or the implementation of programs.
Responsible reporting on mass violence also includes considering the way the media discusses killers — best practices increasingly recommend not naming them or printing their manifestos, which can amplify and glorify hateful rhetoric. Nehorai said the media should talk about the warning signs of mass shootings and concrete actions the public can take. That care must also extend to survivors and family members of victims who are inundated by media requests in the aftermath of shootings. These requests should come from journalists who engage in trauma-informed practices and have been trained and have experience on this beat.
The media plays a powerful and profound role in American culture. As hatred drives violence at synagogues, protests, spas, Walmarts, churches and even garlic festivals, the media owe a duty of care to the public to report on it.
As Biba said, “Always question your assumptions.”