Media And Mass Murder: There Should Be A Law?

The rash (or seeming rash) of rampage mass shootings perpetrated from Jared Loughner to Adam Lanza has led to a great deal of soul searching and calls to action in the U.S. These calls to action have tended to focus on mental health issues, violent video games and movies, and (of course) gun control. Less talked about is whether the media bears any culpability for influencing “copy cats” with their coverage of these tragedies. To clarify, I’m not necessarily referring to those who copy a previous event exactly, but more generally to those who may be “inspired” to commit their own mass murder after seeing the notoriety of previous killers.

To be sure, when confronted by an unspeakable tragedy such as Sandy Hook, there is little room for doubt that the media coverage can become almost pornographic with each source trying to “outscoop” the others, with more and more lurid details. Reporters who are out to make a name for themselves try to dig up any little factoid that may get them noticed. This incessant coverage gives the shooter a measure of fame, or more accurately, notoriety. The question is, does this influence some disaffected or mentally ill individual, who might be thinking of suicide – or even just lashing out, to follow suit? If such a person is already thinking about doing himself in, would the aforementioned fame lead one to think that this would be a good way to go out…the proverbial blaze of glory, with his name forever enshrined in history? Matt Lewis concurs:

The entertainment-media complex promotes and glamorizes violence — for profit — in film and on TV. Meanwhile, the news media ensures that killers get the attention and fame they so desperately crave.

To be sure, a transparent society demands reporting newsworthy incidents — and this definitely qualifies. But it should be done responsibly. And that is not what we have witnessed. We have instead a feeding frenzy that is all about beating the competition — not disseminating information.

In his book, “The Copycat Effect” , author Loren Coleman suggests a case against newspapers, TV and books that sensationalize murders and suicides, thus encouraging others to imitate destructive crimes. I think the media already knows on some level that it can influence copy cats. For instance, networks covering sporting events will now show unruly fans running on the playing field for fear that others will do the same. This has prompted David Koppel to suggest a set of principles that media outlets should follow:

Even if one grants  the arguments that publication of a  publicity-minded killer’s name and picture  serve a public interest that trumps the risk  of encouraging copycats, there are some  standards that every responsible media  outlet could adopt, to at least reduce the  risk:

1. If a killer was  seeking infamy, neither his picture nor his  words should ever appear on the front page.  The front page, because it seen at  newsstands, convenience stores, and other  locations, even by people who don’t read the  newspaper, has a publicity value that far  exceeds any other part of the newspaper.

2. Temple argues  that photos help readers understand that  people who do terrible things are often very  ordinary-looking. If so, a single photo on a  single day is sufficient.

3. Never run a photo  or video which the killer has chosen for his  own publicity. Similarly, never run a photo  of the killer “in action” – as in a  surveillance tape. Such photos are enticing  to sociopaths.

4. Do publish a  photo showing the disgusting post-mortem  condition of the killer, with half his face  blown off after he has killed himself or  been shot by a good citizen. The photo  should appear, not in the printed paper, but  on the newspaper’s Web site and behind a  warning page. Such photos would deglamourize  the perpetrators.

5. Although there is  some news value in reporting the killer’s  name initially, there is no need to use the  name incessantly. Talk shows, TV programs,  and follow-up news articles should follow  the good example of Caplis and Silverman.  Refer to the killer instead as “the coward,”  or some other term.

I definitely like the idea of a set of self-imposed standards adopted by the media. However, I’m no sure if it will work. Given the competition among news outlets and the 24 hour news cycle, will the media self-comply, or will the desire for ratings and “the scoop” lead the ambitious editor or journalist to conveniently forget the standards, even if for one story?

Joseph Grenny seems to think so in his piece for Forbes. Thus, he advocates for a Stephen King type law regarding coverage of mass murders. For those who aren’t familiar with the events surrounding Stephen King and his novel, “Rage”:

On Feb 2, 1996, a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates and severely wounded another student. Subsequent media coverage obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of Feb 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. Yet another on March 13. Along with other similarities, more than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource.

Of course, when the Rage pattern became clear, the media scurried to get King’s reaction. King could have defended his right to free speech and used the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument—but he didn’t. Instead, he apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter.

Grenny believes that King’s response should be standardized into a law pertaining to media coverage of rampage-style killings:

We have laws against shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. Free speech is not unlimited. When it incites crime or influences harm we limit it. Too often, the primary concern of competitive media marketplaces is not the effect a story will have, but the attention it will generate. Media moguls have had 38 years to consider the ethical implications of Phillips’ and others’ findings and have been found wanting in accepting their responsibility.

We need to discuss the merits and morality of a law. I don’t suggest a broad one – but one that matches responsibility with influence. It’s already illegal to use free speech to incite others to criminal acts. So if we know a particular kind of speech is inciting violence, how can we appropriately limit it? Is there a way to do so without creating a slippery slope that limits all speech that tenuously connects to some kind of mischief? And if a law is the wrong device, what can we do to make Stephen King’s response the norm rather than the exception?

For example, we know naming a shooter amplifies his or her influence. We know that when his or her race, gender and other personal characteristics are detailed, those who see themselves as similar are far more likely to feel a sense of permission to follow suit. We know details of the crime act as a virtual workshop for would-be acolytes. And for heaven’s sake, when body counts are not only reported but even compared to previous perpetrators, you incite a hideous competition.

To be sure, any attempts to limit the First Amendment should not be taken lightly, and as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy. The risks to freedom of speech are significant. However, when there is a pattern that has developed and the safety of innocent Americans could be at question, maybe it’s time we took a serious and sober look at the issue. To be sure, I would much rather have the media adopt their own ethical standards, but can we really count on them to do so? Would the potential benefits of such a law outweigh the limiting of he media’s First Amendment rights? Could enacting such a law be a slippery slope leading to:



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