Pulled triggers trigger certain responses. What they are depends on the options.
Last Sunday, a mass shooting at a Florida video gamers’ competition resulted in several injuries and three deaths. Officials indicated that the shooter, a 24-year-old male named David Katz of Baltimore, Maryland, was among the three fatalities. In the days following this event, reports revealed that Katz suffered from mental illness.
One can argue that deadly mass shootings are becoming more commonplace in the US, as well as follow-up narratives perpetuated by news media about the culprits. Oddly enough, much of the stories that surround these events are heavily influenced by racial bias. For example, a popular narrative assigned to young White mass shooters is that they suffer from mental health issues (Duxbury, Frizzell, & Lindsay, 2018). Katz was identified as a young White male.
Shaping the Narrative
According to Silva and Capellan (2018), media outlets can associate distinct groups of people with certain types of behavior. This, in turn, might influence public opinion. Regarding mass shootings in the US, there tends to be a divide in how White perpetrators are discussed as opposed to members of another racial or ethnic group. In fact, media coverage frequently circulates negative stereotypes about people of color — this includes individuals of Islamic faith — during moral panics about crime (Duxbury et al., 2018).
Mental illness has become a dominant narrative used by news media to explain extreme gun violence perpetuated by White individuals. Attributing mass shootings to mental health issues diverts blame, and instead may frame a shooter as the victim or a sympathetic character. The luxury of this narrative, however, is not afforded to people of color. For example, crime news coverage often characterizes Blacks and Latino(a)s as groups who suffer from moral failings.
With an unofficial diagnosis of mental illness, White individuals also manage to escape the stigma of being a potential threat to society. This remains the case though evidence has shown that mass public shooters are usually White — most specifically White males in their late thirties (Silva and Capellan, 2018). Nevertheless, stereotypes and fears persist involving other groups of people. For example, news media has caused public fear toward jihadist-inspired lone-wolf terrorist shootings though most of these incidents are perpetrated by domestic far-right extremists, who are predominantly White.
A Deeper Dive
Given the media’s tendency to classify White mass shooters as mentally ill, it is worth taking a deeper look into what made Katz wreak havoc at a video gamers’ competition.
An article by Biesecker and McFadden, featured in The Associated Press, gave a brief account of Katz’s life, focusing on his hospitalizations related to mental illness. This article mentioned the alleged shooter’s now divorced parents, who records show disagreed on how to care for him. According to Katz’s mother, Elizabeth, he was addicted to playing video games and would walk around their house in circles or punch a hole in her bedroom door when she hid his gaming controllers. She also asserted that Katz would curl up into a ball and not attend school, and blamed his father, Richard, for not giving him Risperdal — an anti-psychotic medication he was prescribed to take.
Richard, however, insisted that his son was not diagnosed as psychotic. In fact, he claimed Elizabeth was obsessed with using mental health professionals or psychiatric drugs to handle childcare issues that parents should naturally be able to solve. Richard furthermore asserted that Elizabeth constantly provided mental health care professionals with false information and began routinely calling police on Katz for trivial matters after he turned 15.
Two possible conclusions can be derived from the conflicting accounts given by Katz’s parents. First, it is possible that Katz’s father was in denial about his son’s mental health condition. This is not a farfetched conclusion, especially considering the stigma mental illness receives. According to Maranzan (2016), a plethora of scholarly literature shows there are negative stereotypes and inaccurate beliefs held by society regarding people who suffer from cognitive disorders. On the contrary, one might argue that Elizabeth did not know how to properly discipline or raise her child. This is evidenced by a 2010 letter Katz wrote to a magistrate judge asking to live with his father while also describing his mother as “pretty crazy.”
With the complexity of Katz’s upbringing one cannot definitively prove he was mentally ill. Therefore, concluding that he truly suffered from poor cognitive skills was unfounded. This further supports the idea that news media perpetuates certain imagery about different racial groups, which can influence public opinion.
Change of Pace
There must be a concerted effort by news media to remove racial bias from reports about mass shooting events. Talk of mental illness regarding White perpetrators negates any possible blame assigned to these individuals. If there is definitive proof that a mass shooter suffered from mental illness, then attributing horrific events to this issue would be appropriate. Nevertheless, adjusting the narrative of White mass shooters, though seemingly negative, can result in many positive changes.
First, assigning blame to White offenders can possibly shape the way Americans view people of color who partake in gun violence. This, in turn, might change how criminality is perceived regarding mass shootings. For example, Black mass shooters are considered “thugs” or “gangbangers,” a label which often transcends the individual level and is soon applied to the entire racial group. Saying White individuals are equally as capable of horrific behaviors could shift views about which groups perpetrate mass shootings. As a result, stereotypes about those of Islamic faith, Blacks and Latino(a)s residing in disadvantaged communities, or any other groups of color might subside.
Another group that could potentially benefit from a change in media narratives about White mass shooters is the mentally ill community. To date, news stories linking mental illness to gun violence has resulted in negative attitudes towards those with serious mental health issues. Despite this public perception, however, Wilson, Ballman, and Buczek (2016) stated that those suffering from “mental illness, on average, are not violent” (p. 646). Shifting perspectives on the cause of mass shootings can lessen the stigma assigned to those with poorer cognitive skills, thus enhancing their quality of life.
Ultimately, the mass shooting at Florida’s video gamers’ competition was an occurrence that Americans have become all too familiar with. The same is true of news media’s propensity to diagnose White perpetrators as mentally ill. Changing the way White individuals are viewed regarding mass shootings and their tendencies towards violence can possibly alleviate the negative stereotypes associated with other racial or ethnic groups, as well as those who truly suffer from mental illness.
Duxbury, S. W., Frizzell, L. C., & Lindsay, S. L. (2018). Mental illness, the media, and the moral politics of mass violence: The role of race in mass shootings coverage. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 0022427818787225.
Maranzan, K. A. (2016). Addressing mental illness stigma in the psychology classroom. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(3), 235–249.
Silva, J. R., & Capellan, J. A. (2018). A comparative analysis of media coverage of mass public shootings: Examining rampage, disgruntled employee, school, and lone-wolf terrorist shootings in the united states. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 0887403418786556.
Wilson, L. C., Ballman, A. D., & Buczek, T. J. (2016). News content about mass shootings and attitudes toward mental illness. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 93(3), 644–658.