How 'Media Contagion' Fuels Mass Shootings

If mass murderers are seeking fame, why give it to them?

Killers responsible for mass shootings all seem to fit the same profile. They're all depressed, pathologically narcissistic and socially isolated, finds a new study by researchers at Western New Mexico University, and putting them in the media spotlight each time a mass shooting occurs only gives them the attention they seek.

According to the study's authors, "media contagion" plays a significant role in the rise of mass casualty events in the United States, with such occurrences defined as any violent episode involving injuries or deaths in a public place of multiple people not related to the perpetrator. The research is due to be presented at this year's annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

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As the authors note, the latest FBI analysis shows that mass shooting in the United States have tripled in the last three years, and analyses into copycat incidents suggest a common thread.

"[P]revention of many mass shootings may now be within our grasp as criminologists, media communications specialists, psychologists, and contagion-modeling mathematicians converge upon a similar conclusion: a key motivator of the majority of mass shooters is the fame and power they perceive they will achieve for their crimes," the authors write.

Looking at data on mass shootings collected by media outlets, the FBI and advocacy groups, the researchers paint a portrait of the typical mass murderer. Demographically speaking, most killers are white, ostensibly heterosexual men between ages 20 and 50.

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Although the particulars of each attack vary, from the location to the means to the explicit motives, a particular mindset prevails among these criminals, in that they often see themselves as victims driven to act out of some twisted sense of justice. Gaining notoriety through violent actions toward anonymous victims is, in the minds of killers, a means of reclaiming social capital.

The rise of 24-hour news channels and social media has corresponded with an increase in mass shootings. Today, there is an average of one mass shooting every 12.5 days and one school shooting every 31.6 days. Prior to 2000, there were only about three shooting incidents per year, the authors note.

The study suggests that one of the most effective ways of curbing mass shooting incidents is to put an end to the media coverage that tends to glorify killers and downplay the victims.

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"If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years," co-author Jennifer B. Johnston said in a statement. "Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed."

The findings are in line with previous research that found that mass killing and school shootings in particular in the United States are contagious. Last year, a PLOS One study reported that typically a period of contagion lasts an average of 13 days and that around 20 to 30 percent of such tragedies arise from contagion. Such incidents are also more common in states with a high prevalance of gun ownership.

Johnston cites past efforts by media organizations to adjust the coverage for the sake of the public good. In the 1990s, for example, reporting of celebrity suicides changed after a working group spearheaded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made recommendations to the media because of contagion concerns.

"The media has come together before to work for good, to incite social change. They have done it, and they can do it," the authors write. "It is time. It is enough."