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Articles   |    
Effects of News Media Messages About Mass Shootings on Attitudes Toward Persons With Serious Mental Illness and Public Support for Gun Control Policies
Emma E. McGinty, M.S.; Daniel W. Webster, Sc.D., M.P.H.; Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., M.P.P.
Am J Psychiatry 2013;170:494-501. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13010014
View Author and Article Information

The authors report no financial relationships with commercial interests.

From the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore.

Address correspondence to Ms. McGinty (emcginty@jhsph.edu).

Copyright © 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association

Received January 10, 2013; Revised February 04, 2013; Accepted February 05, 2013.

Abstract

Objective  In recent years, mass shootings by persons with serious mental illness have received extensive news media coverage. The authors test the effects of news stories about mass shootings on public attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and support for gun control policies. They also examine whether news coverage of proposals to prevent persons with serious mental illness from having guns exacerbates the public’s negative attitudes toward this group.

Method  The authors conducted a survey-embedded randomized experiment using a national sample (N=1,797) from an online panel. Respondents were randomly assigned to groups instructed to read one of three news stories or to a no-exposure control group. The news stories described, respectively, a mass shooting by a person with serious mental illness, the same mass shooting and a proposal for gun restrictions for persons with serious mental illness, and the same mass shooting and a proposal to ban large-capacity magazines. Outcome measures included attitudes toward working with or living near a person with serious mental illness, perceived dangerousness of persons with serious mental illness, and support for gun restrictions for persons with serious mental illness and for a ban on large-capacity magazines.

Results  Compared with the control group, the story about a mass shooting heightened respondents’ negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and raised support for gun restrictions for this group and for a ban on large-capacity magazines. Including information about the gun restriction policy in a story about a mass shooting did not heighten negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness or raise support for the restrictions.

Conclusions  The aftermath of mass shootings is often viewed as a window of opportunity to garner support for gun control policies, but it also exacerbates negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness.

Abstract Teaser
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FIGURE 1. Experimental Conditions and News Story Texta

a Passages in bold italic type indicate the differences between stories 2 and 3.

FIGURE 2. Logistic Regression Results of News Story Effects on Predicted Support for Gun Policies (N=1,797)

a For this question, respondents were asked, “Would you support or oppose increasing federal funding to pay for a background check system to identify people with serious mental illness in order to prevent them from purchasing a firearm?” Possible responses were 1, strongly oppose; 2, somewhat oppose; 3, neither support nor oppose; 4, somewhat support; and 5, strongly support. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for support (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 for oppose (ratings of 1–3).

b For this question, respondents were asked, “As you may know, high-capacity gun magazines or clips can hold many rounds of ammunition, so a shooter can fire more rounds without manually reloading. Would you support or oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition? Possible responses were 1, strongly oppose; 2, somewhat oppose; 3, neither support nor oppose; 4, somewhat support; and 5, strongly support. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for support (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 for oppose (ratings of 1–3).

*p<0.05. **p<0.01. ***p<0.001.

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 1.Weighted and Unweighted Descriptive Characteristics of Experiment Participants (N=1,797)a
Table Footer Note

a Weighted results apply the GfK Knowledge Networks survey weights to generate nationally representative estimates. No significant differences were seen on any variable across experimental groups.

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 2.Attitudes Toward Persons With Serious Mental Illness and Support for Gun Control Policies, Control Group (N=456)
Table Footer Note

a Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, definitely willing; 2, probably willing; 3, neither willing nor unwilling; 4, probably unwilling; and 5, definitely unwilling. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for negative attitudes (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 otherwise (ratings of 1–3).

Table Footer Note

b Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, strongly disagree, 2, somewhat disagree; 3, neither agree nor disagree; 4, somewhat agree; and 5, strongly agree. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for negative attitudes (ratings 4 or 5) and 0 otherwise (ratings of 1–3).

Table Footer Note

c Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, strongly oppose; 2, somewhat oppose; 3, neither support nor oppose; 4, somewhat support; and 5, strongly support. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for support (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 for oppose (ratings of 1–3).

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 3.Logistic Regression Results of News Story Effects on Attitudes Toward Persons With Serious Mental Illness (N=1,797)
Table Footer Note

a For this question, respondents were asked, “Would you be willing to have a person with serious mental illness start working closely with you on a job?” Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, definitely willing; 2, probably willing; 3, neither willing nor unwilling; 4, probably unwilling; and 5, definitely unwilling. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for negative attitudes (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 otherwise (ratings of 1–3).

Table Footer Note

b For this question, respondents were asked, “Would you be willing to have a person with serious mental illness as a neighbor?” Responses were coded as outlined in note a, above.

Table Footer Note

c For this question, respondents were asked, “People with serious mental illness are, by far, more dangerous than the general population.” Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, strongly disagree; 2, somewhat disagree; 3, neither agree nor disagree; 4, somewhat agree; and 5, strongly agree. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for negative attitudes (ratings 4 or 5) and 0 otherwise (ratings of 1–3).

Table Footer Note

* p<0.05. **p<0.01.

Anchor for Jump
TABLE 4.Logistic Regression Results of News Story Effects on Support for Gun Policies (N=1,797)
Table Footer Note

a For this question, respondents were asked, “Would you support or oppose increasing federal funding to pay for a background check system to identify people with serious mental illness in order to prevent them from purchasing a firearm?” Responses were originally recorded on a 5-point scale: 1, strongly oppose; 2, somewhat oppose; 3, neither support nor oppose; 4, somewhat support; and 5, strongly support. This scale was collapsed into a dichotomous indicator coded 1 for support (ratings of 4 or 5) and 0 for oppose (ratings of 1–3).

Table Footer Note

bFor this question, respondents were asked, “As you may know, high-capacity gun magazines or clips can hold many rounds of ammunition, so a shooter can fire more rounds without manually reloading. Would you support or oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition?” Responses were coded as outlined in note a, above.

Table Footer Note

* p<0.05. **p<0.01. ***p<0.001.

+

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