How Media Obsession With Body Counts Could Actually Motivate the Next Mass Shooter

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The day after the gun massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, filmmaker Michael Moore—whose 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine” tackled that watershed mass shooting—took note of a particular fact. “As of yesterday,” he told his millions of Twitter followers, “Columbine is no longer one of the 10 worst mass shootings in US history.”

CNN had already published the full scorecard: “2 of the 5 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history happened in the last 35 days,” announced the headline. The CNN list of “the 10 deadliest single-day mass shootings in modern US history” was subdivided by tallies of the dead.

The Texas attack came just a month after the one at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip—widely declared “the worst mass shooting in modern US history,”which was true, by an order of magnitude, in terms of the overall number of people wounded and killed. An NBC News report on the church massacre opened by noting that it was “the worst mass murder in Texas history.” Other outlets observed that the crime committed by a former airman with a record of violent domestic abuse had finally outdone the infamous clock tower mass shooting at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966.

But it’s time to stop emphasizing body counts. It adds nothing significant to the coverage—and it may actually exacerbate the problem.

I say this as a journalist who built the first open-source database of mass shootingsand who has studied and reported in-depth on this phenomenon for the past five years. Along the way I’ve learned a lot about the problem—including what can help inspire potentially dangerous people to conceive, plan, and then carry out these heinous acts. One key factor is a fascination with high-profile mass shootings, and an explicit desire to top their death tolls. It’s part of a broader goal seen among many perpetrators: the desire for lasting infamy.

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