The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting in modern American history, leaving 58 dead, injuring over 500 and instilling fear in the whole nation. Considering the sheer number of casualties, many people have wondered: why hasn’t the Vegas shooting been officially labeled as an act of terrorism?
The definition of terrorism involves the perpetrator’s intentions, but since there is an absence of a clear motive, the shooting has not been called a terrorist attack.
Instead, the media have turned to the shooter’s mental health to explain his deadly act. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, was suspected of an undiagnosed mental illness, according to headlines from USA Today and ABC News.
At the same time, Las Vegas police suggested that Paddock’s brain autopsy had no abnormalities, nor did he have a previous history of mental illnesses.
So why did the media assume the mental state of the shooter despite the absence of evidence?
Regardless of the new revelations that may come forward in the Las Vegas shooting investigation, the media heavily insinuated that mental illness was involved.
Understandably, we like to think that no one in their right mind would commit such crimes. But speculating that the violence was due to mental illness, especially without evidence, is inappropriate. Instead, media outlets should take all evidence into consideration before reaching a conclusion and should choose their words carefully to avoid misrepresentation.
In a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers found that almost four in 10 news stories falsely associate mental illnesses with violent behavior. According to study leader Professor Emma McGinty, the negative portrayal of mental illnesses aggravates a distorted perception, influencing the opinion of the public and leading people with these symptoms to be less inclined to seek treatment.
The negative portrayal of mental illnesses aggravates a distorted perception.
Considering that almost one in five American adults have experienced mental health issues, mental illness is a prevalent issue that we should work together to destigmatize.
I am not denying that serious mental illnesses have caused violence in the past — the Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear, Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza all suffered from severe mental disorders that spurred some of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
But the number of shooters reported in the media with serious mental illnesses pales in comparison to the actual number of shooters with serious mental illnesses. According to the American Journal of Mental Health, less than five percent of all gun violence in the U.S. stems from diagnosed mental health issues.
By misrepresenting the facts, the media perpetuates the illusion that individuals with mental health issues are unpredictable and dangerous. The media should avoid oversimplifying mental illnesses and should be more aware of word choice when reporting on mass shootings.