Only press itself can stop copycats

Killers, suicides thrive on publicity given those who perpetrated earlier crimes

October 7, 2006

by David Kopel

Do the media play a role in causing mass murders in schools and other public places? Certainly. Can anything be done about it? Perhaps.

Monday's school hostage-taking and murders in Pennsylvania, targeting female students, were likely a copycat of the previous week's attack here at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, suggested Regis University professor Don Lindley in Tuesday's Denver Post.Later that day, new evidence supported the copycat theory: The killer was a confessed child molester who had planned on sexually assaulting his Amish child victims. But The Philadelphia Inquirerreported that the killer had bought the cable ties, which he would later use to bind the victims, on Sept. 26, the day before the Bailey attack.

If the copycat relationship between Colorado and Pennsylvania is still unclear, the prevalence of copycat mass murders is not. In the award-winning article "Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media," (Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1993-'94), Clayton Cramer shows how mass murderers crave publicity, and prepare for their crimes by meticulously studying the publicity given to previous mass murderers.

The same phenomenon has been present in many school shootings, including the Sept. 13 attack at a community college in Montreal, perpetrated by a 25-year-old satanist who was obsessed with Columbine. (As the Columbine killers had studied previous school murders.)

Cramer's article provides good reason for news magazines to stop putting criminals on the front cover - as Timeand Newsweekdid with the Columbine killers and many of their predecessors.

Commendably, the Colorado media coverage of the Platte Canyon High attack has focused on the victims, without making the perpetrator into a posthumous media star. (Note: I've co-authored several articles with Cramer.)

In the 2004 book The Copycat Effect,Loren Coleman documents, in horrific detail, how the publicity about mass murders and suicides leads to more murders and suicides.

He comments on recent events, and warns about more copycat school attacks this month, on his Web site

Copycat violence from media sensationalism dates back at least to 1888, when Jack the Ripper mutilated and murdered five prostitutes in London. Improvements in printing technology, such as typesetting machines, had led to the creation of low-cost, mass-market daily newspapers - "the penny press" - which thrived on lurid crime reporting. The immense publicity given to Jack the Ripper led to many copycat murders and rapes.

Although Coleman does not explicitly say so, his evidence suggests that a Chinese-style system of strict and comprehensive censorship would deprive would-be copycats of inspiration.

However, censoring the American media to prevent school shootings runs into the same problem as banning guns in order to prevent school shootings. An effective gun ban - including confiscation of the more than 200 million guns currently in private hands - would drastically reduce mass murders at schools, since there are no other weapons which are so easy to use and which allow one person to control a crowd at a distance. But it is unrealistic to believe that a gun ban would actually prevent guns from being plentiful on the black market, just as legally prohibited drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin are plentifully supplied on a black market that even a high school student can reach.

Similarly, it is difficult to believe that an official system of censorship in the U.S. could prevent the informal spread of news about school shootings - especially in an era when everyone has cell phones and e-mail. Moreover, official censorship would inadvertently give credibility to false rumors and hoaxes about shootings. (Of course there would also be insurmountable constitutional problems with censorship or gun bans.)

However, we know that media self-censorship does work. Almost all media voluntarily decide not to publish the names of alleged sexual assault victims, and not to show pictures of the corpses of murder victims.

Because, as Coleman details, copycat attacks often take place one month after a previous attack, or on an attack's anniversary, the media should greatly reduce or eliminate anniversary coverage, and thereby avoid giving the date an inflated importance in the mind of a sick or evil individual.

Coleman suggests that every story about a suicide or murder-suicide should include information about hot lines, or other sources of help for suicidal people.

More fundamentally, he writes, "the media has got to stop using rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, and school shootings the way it uses tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes to get people to watch their programs." He urges an end to "graphic and sensational wall-to-wall coverage and commentary of violent acts."

Because of the First Amendment, it is up to the media themselves, and not government, to search for ways to reduce the media's role the vicious cycle of copycat murders and suicides. But the evidence produced by Cramer and Coleman suggests that it is long past time for the media to begin the necessary self-examination.  

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