News Coverage Pushes Perception of Mass Killing Epidemic

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - The recent series of mass, public shootings is nothing new, despite what some may perceive as an epidemic or sudden rise in violence, according to the research of a university criminal justice professor who says modern news coverage puts viewers in the middle of such tragedies.

Northeastern University Criminal Justice Professor James Fox told that what seems like a rise in the number of public shootings is simply a myth. And the reason, he believes, for the perceived "epidemic" of public shootings is modern television reporting.

The difference between mass, public violent acts of today and those of 20 years ago, Fox suggests, is that modern technology and journalism puts the viewer right at the scene of a crime. "When you're in the midst of a string of shootings you feel like it's an epidemic," Fox said. "We have a way of forgetting about a wave of shootings we've had in previous years."

On average, Fox's study shows that between 1976 and 1997, there are 23.7 incidents per year committed by 34.3 offenders who claim the lives of 114.6 people every year. Fox's research shows that in the 21-year span studied, 755 offenders claimed the lives of 2,522 victims.

The pinnacle year for mass murders between 1976 and 1997, Fox's research shows, was 1977 when 38 offenders committed 32 instances, taking 141 lives. The year with the lowest number of mass killings in the 21-year period was 1994 with 17 incidents by 31 offenders claiming 74 victims.

The sky isn't falling like some may think, Fox suggests, adding that live television coverage puts the viewer in the middle of the drama.

Buford Furrow, the alleged confessed trigger-man in the latest incident of mass shootings reportedly told police his mission was to send a "wake up call," that it's time to "kill Jews." Furrow had no trouble getting his message to the masses with the help of at least three cable news outlets providing wall-to-wall, ground-to-air coverage of the aftermath.

From ground level reporters "live" on the scene to helicopters hovering above, viewers were treated to anti-sniper units perched on rooftops, police escorting chains of children across the street and the emotion of distressed family members fearing the worst for relatives in the trauma of tragedy.

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris gained instant, albeit post-mortem, fame for their shooting spree and suicide mission which left 13 victims dead. They too, were the cause behind the live action coverage of news teams scurrying to beat the competition. Again, the public saw the emotion on the ground and the action from the sky.

Intertwined between the hard news sights and sounds during such instances, one can expect, and perhaps recall, sound bites from those directly involved or others reacting to the news, sometimes with an agenda.

"Once again our nation has been shaken and our hearts torn by an act of gun violence," President Bill Clinton said, responding to the shooting spree at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center.

But the latest string of shootings "does not signal a new trend in America," Fox said.

"The difference between now and, say, the middle 1980s, is that when it happens now we have many news channels that will cover it live and so you're put right in the middle of the drama. Back then, we weren't put in the middle of the drama...and we didn't have the same approach to news reporting. We didn't have CNBC, MSNBC and Fox News Channel." CNN, the pioneer of 24-hour news, was still in its infancy in the 1980s.