Gun violence is getting even worse in the United States. One-on-one shootings regularly pepper local news around the country, all while killings of unarmed black men by U.S. police and mass shootings continue to make headlines around the world. More than 15,330 people have died from gun violence in 2017, according to the Gun Violence Archive — roughly 22% more people than in 2014.
Now, a study underscores a serious issue in all of this: selective empathy for gun violence victims, who are often faulted for their own deaths.
Researchers at Duke University and Simmons College asked 453 study participants to read about an unarmed man who was killed in a shooting. In some cases, they told the participants that the victim was a college student from a middle-class suburb — the son of an English professor and banker. In other cases, they painted the victim more “negatively,” and they also specified that the victim or the shooter was a black man or a white man.
Here’s what they found: Study participants were more likely to recommend a lighter sentence for the shooter who killed the “negative” or “bad” victim, regardless of whether or not the victim was black or white. Basically, social scientists stumbled upon a classic case of victim blaming.
“Reading negative information about the shooting victim not only affected attitudes about the victim, it also altered attitudes about the shooter,” Sarah Gaither, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of psychology at Duke University, said in a release. “That surprised us.”
Participants did respond more harshly when both the victim and the shooter were from different racial demographics — in other words, they reacted differently when a black man shot a white man or when a white man shot a black man.
Regardless, “These results highlight the powerful impact that the media can have in reporting shooting incidents,” Gaither said.