Guns and FEAR: Part 3, The Media

In our next installment of the Guns and Fear discussion, I’ll be discussing the media.  Before you go any further, please understand that any mass shooting, murder, or wrongful death of any innocent person is illegal and should not be condoned by any society.  In our discussion today, we will be focusing on the “information” distributing media: news channels, talk shows, and political pundits with air time. Do not take any of this discussion as an endorsement or justification for gun deaths in America or anywhere else.

This will also be the first post where we actually propose a recommendation to stem violent shootings in America.

The genesis of this series of blog posts came from the variety of emails hitting our inbox asking for support on gun control.  The majority of the justification in the emails seemed like regurgitation of information from news channels--the “media.” As a species, we trust those that get paid a lot of money to recite information fed to them on teleprompters, ask producer-driven questions of “subject matter experts,” and speculate based on the responses of the experts.  Then, within a commercial break, change the subject to speak intelligently on anything from technology, to economics, to medicine. It’s crazy we put that much trust in a people that simply read and speculate.

We trust the face.  We trust the person.  We trust the words. We trust the pretty pictures and graphs.   We don’t think about the hundreds of people behind them working to get their network to the top of the ratings.

I learned to not trust the media in my mid-20’s.  We conducted a few national-level missions that made the news.  By the time we hit the chow hall 24 hours later, we watched newscasters relay grossly incorrect information as if they were delivering the message from the commander himself.  Channel after channel, the details changed, but they were all wrong. Then the talking heads (AKA Subject Matter Experts) started piping in on the mission, tactics, and ramifications of the event.  Again, all wrong. From a very young age, I learned that the details were not as important as the sensationalism and ratings.

There have been numerous studies done on mass shootings and the media over the past couple of decades (linked below) and the majority of them say the same thing… the media races to cover these events and represent shootings in a manner larger than their likelihood, statistical significance, and contribute to the increase of shootings.  

Yes, they contribute to the increase of shootings.  

“The mass media play an important role in the social construction of reality as they define and shape issues and events rather than just reflect what is occurring in society” (pg3 mass shootings)

It’s called “Agenda Setting.”  The primary goal of agenda setting is to achieve a consensus among the population about the relevancy, importance, and “necessary change” required to solve the problem.  Media is the main driver of agenda setting in today’s world. It has been for a very long time. As Author Bernard Cohen states in book, The Press and Foreign Policy, has noted, “the media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people what to think about.”

When you’re watching the news, work to dissect who is actually talking to you and what they’re getting you to think about.  

Primary Claim Makers: A person with intimate or first-hand knowledge of the event.  Eyewitnesses, victims, responders, or the person committing the offense.

Secondary Claim Makers:  A person or group of people further removed from the event that interpret or disseminate claims from Primary Claim Makers.

The challenge with both is that it’s tough for both to deliver accurate information in front of a camera or in response to questions aimed toward the agenda setting.  Being in front of a national news network camera is stressful. Everybody wants to look their best, speak intelligently, and relay what they believe to be the truth.  Anybody that’s been in this position can attest to how challenging that task can be when the person in control of the message retains intent. Primary claim makers are dealing with the shock of the event.  Secondary claim makers are working to keep their reputation and calls coming in for paid advice from the networks.  And both are lead with intent.

In my first post in the Guns and Fear series, the one thing I told you to remember is, “IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS.”  Media channels race to scenes of mass shooting, work to be the first to interview a victim or first responder, and distribute the information to the masses.  And it’s all done with an agenda--to get ratings and clicks.  

Headlines with “Shooter” or “Gunmen” are double the headlines naming the victims or event.  Statistics regarding the victim count are communicated four times more than the community statistics regarding violence.   When events are in the headlines, the top words accompanying the event are “Shooting, Rampage, Massacre and Bloodshed.” Statistics are interpreted to meet an agenda and national statistics regarding violence are scarily absent in the majority of the broadcasting.  If national statistics were present and communicated correctly, the media would underscore the unlikelihood of these events happening.  

But that’s not gonna happen because it doesn’t add to the agenda, generate hundreds of hours of television, or thousands of articles and social media posts.  The headlines and statistics are taken one step further to drive fear with the “what could have happened” commentary.  That “what could have happened” hits home for a lot of us.  Husbands, wives, children, family members, friends. What could have happened to them?  This touches the fear response buttons, captivates us, and leverages our fear to drive action behind an agenda.  

Here’s the biggest challenge; it also hits home, captivates, and motivates others to create fear.  This phenomenon, labeled the “Contagion Effect,” indicates that once a mass shooting occurs and distributed via media, there is a higher likelihood of another mass shooting.  Importantly, the way that the media report an event can play a role in increasing the probability of imitation. When a mass shooting event occurs, there is generally extensive media coverage. This coverage often repeatedly presents the shooter’s image, manifesto, and life story and the details of the event, and doing so can directly influence imitation

A shooting happens.  Viewership and clicks go up.  An imitation event happens. Ratings and clicks go up again.  And so on. Each time, media volume and sensationalism increases with no regard to how they’re contributing to the problem.  Is it just us, or does this seem like a self licking ice cream cone?

But why?


Those media channels, fat paychecks for news anchors, and news crews don’t pay for themselves.  The sponsors pay for it. You know... the companies that promote products and services during the commercial breaks.  They pay lots of money to occupy that time when millions of eyeballs are glued to the news.   

Think about it.  You’re listening to the tragedy, feeling heartbroken, saddened, and fearful about a mass shooting, then all of a sudden… something that doesn’t make you feel so sad.  And you can buy it, reinforcing a temporary feeling of goodness. We’re not judging. We’ve all been there.  

Here’s the worst part, it is possible to reduce or mitigate the problem.  

Over a 50 year study, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a media reporting guideline system to reduce imitation suicides that could easily be followed to reduce mass shootings.  The guidelines cover a reduction of sensationalism, avoiding prominent headlines, not attributing the tragedy to a single cause, and limiting the frequency of reporting. The data says it system works.  It is possible to do the same thing with mass shootings.

Domestic organizations such as the Advanced Law Enforcement Response Training team, in collaboration with the FBI, developed the “Don’t Name Them” campaign to reduce media induced imitational mass shootings.  If you’ve been keeping up with the FBI and their media releases over the past decade, you’ll see a major shift in their communication from 2016 moving forward in alignment with this initiative. 

The networks state their priority is the reduction of mass shootings in our nation, but as I stated in the second installment of this series, “Don’t tell me what your priorities are.  Show me what you consume, where you spend your time, and how you spend your money. Those reflect your priorities.” By that statement and the options available to media leadership to reduce mass shootings with their influence, the media's priority is not to reduce violence in America; it’s to increase ratings, viewership, and sponsor dollars. 

So, if the media is going to add to the problem, what should we do about it?

I suggest we hold them liable. If the media wants to report a mass shooting, they should contribute 100% of the sponsor dollars for the hour surrounding (+/- 30 minutes) their coverage of the story to the family members of the victims.  100% of gross dollars, not NET. 100%. All of it. If they really cared about the victims and reducing violence, they’ll do it out of the goodness of their hearts and contribute a large volume of revenue to the victims. 

As consumers, you should boycott any company that airs a commercial surrounding the reporting or speculation of a mass shooting. 

Watch what happens.  Start taking their dollars and see how they’ll change their tune.  They’ll quit speculating, sensationalizing, and throwing fuel on the fire that is the mass shooting contagion effect.

If you want to know what happened in a mass shooting, read or watch the official statement from the local or federal law enforcement agency.  They’ll report facts. They’ll report data. They’re not going to speculate or add to the problem as they’re the ones truly working to end this type of violence in America.

In our next installation of the Guns and FEAR series, we’ll begin addressing the pro-gun side of the issue.

Combat Flip Flops guns and fear part 3 matt griffin author
About the Author: West Point Graduate, Special Operations Army Ranger, Entrepreneur, Public Speaker, Henry Crown Fellow.


  • Robert

    The speculation part is the part of the news that I hate the most. If the media/talking heads don’t know, then they should not even be commenting on it. The other part is the misleading information, which there seems to be a lot of it.

  • Tracy

    Thank you for shining a light on this. I am continually frustrated but these discussions and grateful for what you shared.

  • David Noble


    Do you have more recent data? The link that you provided points to a article from 2015. The chart they show covers 7 years (2009-2015). I am not a researcher of mathematician. I found a list of mass shootings on Wikipedia and sorted it by year. From 2009 to 2015 they list 102 deaths from mass shootings in that 7 year period. From 2106-2019 I counted 217 deaths from mass shootings. That’s more than double in only a four year period. Prior to 2015 the list shows years with no mass shootings. The frequency of mass shootings has seemed to increase. Maybe it is in part due to media coverage. I don’t know.

    If data is going to be used to shape policy or support a theory, then it should be current. Like I said I am not a mathematician or a researcher so I don’t know how up to date data from the US and the rest of Europe would effect the chart.

  • Catherine Cappel

    I noticed that you only responded to some comments mentioned above. Why didn’t you address the fact that other countries do not have the mass shooting and overall “gun problem” that the United States does? I think you also need to look beyond “mass” shootings. Sensible gun control is needed, and I am disappointed that you aren’t communicating that.

  • JT

    Some creative use of number in your links … and since I’m a Norwegian (ex-army officer) I’ve pasted Snopes comment about Norway below as an example since we seems to be the most dangerous country to live in with regards to mass shootings per capita (for those who care to read).

    I have to agree with Josh’s comment – why is this different in the US?
    Norway has a high civilian guns per capita and we watch the same movies as US, but we’ve had only one mass shooting (by a far-right activist with an agenda to fight socialism) over the last 15 years. When looking at mass shooting as a problem in society the number of shootings should be more worrying than the number of people killed.

    Beside guns, are there any other common factors identified for the shooters – could mental health problems be a valid common identificator?

    Need to get me a new pair of AK-47s for next summer by the way – best flip flops I’ve ever worn!

    “The example of Norway gives a good illustration of just how absurd this use of statistics is. In 2009 and 2010, according to the data, there were zero mass shooting deaths in Norway. In 2011, far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people in a series of bombings in Oslo, then shot dead 69 more in a massacre at a Labor Party summer camp on Utoya island.

    In 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, there was not a single death from a mass shooting in Norway.

    If we compare the number of mass shooting deaths each year to the population of Norway each year, using the same method we did for the United States, we get an average annual death rate of 2 per million, more than 20 times higher than the rate in the United States (0.09 per million), even though we know there were zero mass shooting deaths in six out of those seven years, in Norway.In his analysis, Lott used the mean to calculate the average annual death rate from mass shootings, which is calculated by adding all the numbers in a set divided by the amount of numbers in the set. This is a problem in situations such as these, as it assigns equal value to all numbers. (The mean of a set of numbers is also referred to as its average.)

    The median, which is the middle point in a list of values in which half the numbers are above and half are below, can give a far better sense of what is typical.

    If we apply the median to Norway’s annual death rate from mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, we mitigate against the enormous skewing effect of one of those years (2011), and get a much more realistic statistical picture of mass shootings in Norway. The median, in this case, is zero. That means that in a typical year between 2009 and 2015, nobody in Norway was killed in a mass shooting."

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