How Mass Media Distorts Mass Shootings

What is the media’s role in constructing and perpetuating myths about mass shootings?
It’s a question that has long intrigued Jason R. Silva (Ph.D. ’19, Criminal Justice).

Silva, who recently accepted an appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at William Paterson University, spent much of his doctoral program at The Graduate Center researching the matter from a quantitative perspective for his dissertation. In fact, as a project manager for the School Shooting Database at John Jay College, he helped create what he says is “arguably one of the most comprehensive mass shooting databases in the country.”
But he switched tactics for a new article published in the journal Victims & Offenders. Silva evaluated a different kind of media — film — to understand how it contributes to myths about mass shootings. Among his findings, Silva concluded that although films Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant (based on Columbine) and 2011’s Beautiful Boy (based on the Virginia Tech shooting) offered a more nuanced understanding of victimization, they contributed to popular myths about mass shootings by portraying perpetrators in a largely homogenic way.
He spoke to The Graduate Center about his latest research and its implications.
Graduate Center: The connection between criminal justice theory and popular culture seems ripe for exploration. What excites you in particular about the intersection between these two areas?

Jason R. Silva

Silva: When it comes to mass shootings, so much of the information we get is from the news media, so a lot of the mass shooting research has historically focused on the news media’s influence on public understanding. With Columbine, the media focused on [the perpetrators’] decision-making processes, like how they were influenced by Marilyn Manson and violent movies and video games. That ended up being a myth, so I was interested in other myths that are rooted in media and cinematic representations of mass shootings.
GC: How can academic research combat misinformation when the news cycle happens so quickly these days?
Silva: Historically, scholars in the mass shooting realm have been saying “no notoriety” is very important. We’ve been finding that the news media is shifting and focusing its attention more on victims and less on the perpetrators. Since the Parkland shooting, there’s been a pretty drastic change in media coverage, although they still fall for many of these pitfalls. When we look at film, we’re hoping that transition will happen as well. Although I highlight in my piece that perhaps films were ahead of the curve because they were able to explore the emotional dynamics of victimization that news media doesn’t have the time to get involved in.
GC: How problematic are films about mass shootings if they allow audiences to empathize more deeply with the victims, but still perpetuate myths about perpetrators?
Silva: It’s definitely problematic, but at the same time it’s a film — it’s not meant to represent reality, per se. However, these films often try to coerce the viewer that these are realistic representations, so it seems like, ‘Well, maybe you are more accountable than a normal film would be.’
GC: So what comes next in this line of research for you?
Silva: The article was a bit of an anomaly for me — it was more of a qualitative than a quantitative analysis. I’m more of a quantitative person. I have that large open source data set that I mainly use for my research. Right now, we’re looking at fame-seeking perpetrators in real life. Everyone goes back to Columbine when they think about this because the Columbine perpetrators were fame seeking — they talked about who was going to make the movie about them. We’re seeing that there’s a lot of copycats seeking celebrity status, and they know the best way to do that is to kill more people. Obviously, the number one force driving media coverage is victim count, so if you want to be the next famous mass shooter, you’re going to have to have the highest victim count. We’re focusing a lot on fame-seeking perpetrators and strategies for addressing that.
GC: And congratulations on landing a faculty appointment at William Paterson University. What most excites you about the new role? What do you think made you stand out in competitive field?
Silva: I am excited about the opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary department that combines my background in criminal justice, criminology, sociology, and media studies. I think the national relevance of my research helped me stand out. During the interview, the faculty were impressed by my ability to connect with students on issues that are truly relevant to their interests and concerns. 

Submitted on: JUN 19, 2019

Category: Alumni News | Criminal Justice | General GC News