Movies, Media, Myths, and Mass Shootings

In the aftermath of a mass shooting, the media plays a key role not just in disseminating information about the incident, but also in offering a framework to help understand it. Research has shown, however, that this framework can be faulty.

Take Columbine, for example. As the media sought to find an explanation for the perpetrators’ heinous actions, they shared erroneous information “like how (the shooters) were influenced by Marilyn Manson, and violent movies and video games.” That provoked Jason Silva‘s curiosity. “I was interested in other myths that are rooted in media and cinematic representations of mass shootings,” he said.

Silva turned to post-Columbine movies about mass shootings to learn more. He analyzed 11 films to see whether “cinematic constructions” contribute to the same misconceptions found in news coverage. He wrote about his research in the journal Victims & Offenders while completing work for his Ph.D. at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Silva’s film choices included Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant (based on Columbine), 2011’s Beautiful Boy (based on the Virginia Tech shooting), and 2013’s Blue Caprice (based on the Beltway sniper). Silva posed several questions about how each film constructed perpetrators and victims, and how those constructions fed into myths about mass shootings.

Among Silva’s many findings, he concluded that the films tended to perpetuate three myths: that perpetrators are bullied, that they are “insane White shooter[s],” and that they primarily target schools. As such, the films “fuel fear and anxiety surrounding common sense understanding.” 

Silva concluded, “Cinematic constructions blend with news constructions and academic knowledge in determining the public’s accumulated common sense understanding of a phenomenon.”

Silva will soon join the faculty at William Paterson University after successfully defending his dissertation on how the media distort mass shootings.