Covering Mass Killings

Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, M.D. and Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, share insights on the characteristics of mass killers and the ethical responsibilities of news organizations as they help the public make sense of the shooting rampage in Arizona that left six dead and a U.S. Congresswoman grievously injured.

Reporting on the perpetrators of mass shootings and other large-scale attacks and killings tests the skill of reporters and the judgment of news organizations. Breaking news stories that describe killers incorrectly can propagate dangerous generalizations about a specific and terrible event, or spread misconceptions about mental illness. Journalists cannot, and should not, offer instant diagnoses.

But over the last several decades psychiatrists, criminal investigators and other forensic researchers have made significant advances in understanding both serial killers (those who murder one person at a time over an extended period) and spree killers (those who go on an abrupt rampage that claims a number of victims at once.)  By understanding a few basic concepts, by seeking appropriately informed experts and by carefully choosing language, your reporting can help the public make sense of senseless acts. 

THE BASICS: The Perpetrators 

Mass killers tend to fall into several categories (which sometimes blur or overlap): 

A. Revenge-driven: In popular parlance, those who “go postal.” Their motive is often personal humiliation and their actions unfold in an impulsive burst. Many workplace shootings fit into this category. 

B. Rational: This is often part of a religious or political campaign. A suicide bomber or women’s clinic shooter typically fits into this category. These individuals may commit acts which don't make sense to most of us, but which are validated and given meaning by their group or sect, or which reflect a widely shared set of beliefs about society. 

C. Mentally disturbed: This can include individuals who are severely depressed, psychotic, schizophrenic or brain-damaged. Seung-Hui Cho, perpetrator of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University, was likely an early psychotic. Charles Joseph Whitman, who shot 16 people at the University of Texas in 1967, had an aggressive brain tumor which many experts believe played a role in his actions. Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Such individuals may have an ability to plan in meticulous detail, yet suffer from flawed reasoning which does not correlate with reality. They end up feeling “everyone is out of step but me,” and set themselves on a mission which includes dramatic and ultimate acts. 

D. Psychopathic/sadistic: A variant of the organized killer, like Eric Harris at Columbine High School: manipulative individuals who lack empathy or conscience.


Culture matters: Even psychotic or severely disturbed individuals react to the themes, language and images of popular culture. Numerous studies of schizophrenics, for instance, have shown that while delusions are a universal phenomenon, the content of those delusions varies by nation, region or social context. One prominent study, for instance, compared chronic schizophrenics in Japan and Germany. The delusions of German subjects focused on religious themes and fears of specific persecution such as poisoning. In Japan, delusions of slander were the most common. This filtering of culture into delusions is why a deeply disturbed killer like Cho will make videos of himself that seem to reflect Hollywood movies.

Leakage: This is a term coined by Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. It refers to clues that are inevitably left by individuals progressing toward being mass killers but missed by those around them – family, friends, teachers, health professionals. Reporters may stumble over evidence of leakage when they backtrack over a suspect’s life – whether in school papers, Internet postings or interpersonal difficulties. The Columbine killers and Virginia Tech's Cho all left such evidence.

Apprehension, treatment, containment:  Mentally disturbed killers may, if diagnosed appropriately, respond to treatment. John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, is one example: Aided by medication and therapy, he lives a relatively normal life within a psychiatric hospital and is eligible for overnight passes to visit his family. On the other hand, organized psychopathic killers who do not respond to therapy and medication cannot instill conscience. Indeed, therapy may strengthen their manipulative capacity. Serial killers and predators like Gary Ridgeway, Washington State's infamous "Green River Killer," often fit into the latter category.


Remember: Most mentally ill people are NOT dangerous to others. This needs re-emphasis when writing about disturbed killers.

Screen your experts:  Verify the credentials and experience of mental health or law enforcement experts quoted in stories. Ask trusted local law enforcement or criminal-justice sources to whom they would turn for expert consultation. Look for direct experience with the FBI or other agencies with long experience in mass-casualty events; a substantial track record of peer-reviewed academic research in the field or work on a well-regarded commission of inquiry into a past tragedy. Beware of any “expert” who seems too ready to provide a long-distance diagnosis or otherwise rush to conclusions.

Beware the risk of propagating imitators:  Notorious perpetrators do inspire followers, copycats and admirers. To reduce copycats and lionizing, reporters have a special responsibility to portray with precision and accuracy the estrangement of these perpetrators, and to scrupulously avoid language or images that could romanticize their actions. After the Virginia Tech shootings, for instance, several U.S. television networks made the decision to limit broadcast and website visibility of shooter Cho’s dramatic video to the first 24 hours, when it was newsworthy, and take the images down after that.

Treat manifestos with caution:  Reporters often find themselves reporting on killers’ writings, videos or other manifestos. It’s important to be aware that various mental illnesses can affect the content, style and objectives of such messages. The Unabomber famously extorted public space from the New York Times and Washington Post. 

Today, killers self-publish on the Internet. Whether and how to excerpt, publish, or post manifestos and videos raises significant ethical questions which it is important to consider case-by-case.

The legal and political picture: Don’t neglect a look at relevant federal and state laws written to control dangerous mentally ill people, as well as institutions such as courts and community mental health services that are supposed to provide surveillance and a safety net. Laws and institutions that were never adequately administered and funded are part of the story, especially with killers who came into previous contact with mental health services, law enforcement or courts. 

Education opportunities: News coverage of mentally ill killers can also educate the public, particularly parents, about such issues as how to listen to children for evidence of disturbance and how to get them help early. Children and adolescents struggling with isolating mental illness need effective, mature adults available to them. Your coverage can be a crucial part of these young people's being recognized and helped.


FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit

The Academy Group

Critical Incident Analysis Group, University of Virginia

Academy for Critical Incident Analysis

Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York