News coverage of mass shootings often portrays white shooters as having a mental illness, while it portrays black shooters as thugs.
These findings are the result of a study conducted by Cynthia Frisby, an MU journalism professor. Frisby presented her study to a communications department gathering on Friday afternoon.
Frisby said that while more research is needed to show a conclusive link, her study is important because it shows that how news media frames a story can contribute to forming or reinforcing stereotypes.
“A lot of those words and adjectives are found in the headline,” Frisby said. “We know that when most people look at news media, they look at the headline, they look at the picture and then they go out of the page. So they take very little information and make a judgment.”
She studied 170 stories printed from 2008 to 2017 that focused on lone, mass shooters. The stories came from the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today. She defined a mass shooter as someone who kills four or more people in a public place.
Frisby’s study broke the stories into four possible frames: the shooter was mentally ill; the shooter was a thug; the shooter was a terrorist; and the shooter was heroic, meaning the violence was portrayed as a justified way to resolve conflict and blame wasn’t put on the shooter.
The study showed how often each frame was used to talk about shooters of different races.
- Mental illness: 80 percent referred to white shooters, 16 percent to black shooters, 4 percent to Muslim shooters.
- Thug: 53 percent referred to black shooters, 28 percent to Hispanic shooters, 16 percent to white shooters and 3 percent to Muslim shooters.
- Terrorist: 37 percent referred to Muslim shooters, 34 percent to black shooters, 17 percent to white shooters, and Hispanic and Asian shooters were each referred to in 6 percent of the stories.
- Hero: 75 percent of stories referred to white shooters, 16 percent to black shooters and 9 percent referred to Hispanic shooters.
Frisby said how the news media frames a story may cause readers to make false associations.
“There’s a theory that if media, especially in headlines, put two unrelated things together, people will put the two together and assume that they are related, even when there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever,” she said.
Speaking to the gathering, Frisby was critical of the news media using the frame of mental illness in stories about mass shooters.
“We all have mental health issues at some time,” Frisby said.
She said the news media can frame stories using pictures as well as words. She used the example of John Crawford, who was shot and killed by police while shopping in a Walmart in Ohio. He was holding a pellet gun from the store’s sporting goods section.
A picture of Crawford that was used widely in media coverage of the shooting was cropped to show only his head and shoulders as he smiles at the camera. An uncropped version of the photo shows Crawford holding his newborn son.
“When you look at that, there was a very clear, intentional purpose in cropping out the baby and the fact that he was a new father,” Frisby said.
She said the news media might limit how much framing results in stereotyping by relying more on objective facts and less on subjective descriptors. She said she hopes to conduct a study to find out if that would help.
“If we took a topic and measured where people were on it, then exposed them to facts,” Frisby said, “maybe we can start to determine if putting more objective facts in a story can actually change attitudes.”