There’s a moratorium on mass shooting research. This high school student is studying it herself. | Student Science

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There’s a moratorium on mass shooting research. This high school student is studying it herself.

9:00AM, August 20, 2018
Doing Science

Elizabeth Shytle researched how news coverage impacts public understanding of mass shootings.

Mass shootings are a prevalent issue in America. A 1996 bill, which included the Dickey Amendment, has had a chilling effect on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) ability to research the link between firearm ownership and mass shootings in America. Elizabeth Shytle, an inquisitive high schooler from Columbia, South Carolina, wanted to fill in this statistical gap through a science fair project.

She attends a magnet program at Spring Valley High School, which emphasizes research and prepares students who want to enter medical school or other STEM fields. "I was always afraid of hard sciences, because I was told that they were for males," Elizabeth said. "But my school has encouraged me to explore STEM research as a career path. I fell in love with statistical analysis and data collection."

Elizabeth focused her research on the connection between social advocacy and gun control reform.

She began her work collecting data from the National Rifle Association's (NRA's) Twitter handleover one year, using NVivo (a qualitative data analysis computer software) to capture tweets and view them in a spreadsheet. "This was a comprehensive and publicly accessible way to see information from around the world through any given date during which Twitter existed," she explained.

Elizabeth focused her research on the impact news sources and the media can have on audience perception, sometimes distorting information, because of reporting biases. "Mass shooting information is at the forefront of almost all news sources today," she said. "It's a major problem that politicians are trying to fix, but very little quantitative research has been done about what it all means."

Mass shootings are a major problem ... but very little quantitative research has been done about what it all means.

Elizabeth researched statistically significant differences in tweeting patterns of the NRA when mass shootings occurred. Elizabeth hypothesized that there would be a significant decrease in the number of tweets the NRA posted in a day if the mass shooter was nonwhite, if the number of wounded or fatalities was greater than or equal to five, and if the shooting took place in the Southeastern U.S. 

She found, with a 95 percent confidence interval, that there was a significant decrease in the number of tweets from the NRA with all three of these conditions.

"I’m now working to understand the changing public perception of gun control laws before and after a mass shooting occurs,” Elizabeth said. “I’m analyzing more big data and using it to make stronger statements about human nature and understanding human biases." 

She plans to analyze a variety of news sources, gun advocacy or control groups, and big data to see how people respond via Twitter to mass shootings on the day they occur and in the days following a mass shooting.

Her research was selected by her local science fair for recognition as a Society for Science & the Public Community Innovation Award winner. This award honors students participating in science fairs around the world who are making a difference in their communities. In 2018, the Society rewarded 24 young scientists with $500 prizes — and Elizabeth was one of them.

“This award represents the passion that I have to understand societal norms and codes, as well as the copious amounts of research I have conducted to hopefully give people a greater understanding of the growing threats in America.”

More scientists are needed every single day, from all different backgrounds.

Participating in science fairs afforded Elizabeth opportunities to network with like-minded peers. “Science fairs spark healthy and intelligent discussions about what problems in the local and international community need to be addressed, as well as offering ways to approach problems through collaboration,” she said.

“It is amazing and unpredictable what may spark your interest,” she said. “More scientists are needed every single day, from all different backgrounds.”


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