Crime, much like sex, sells. Unfortunately, most are reported in such a sensational manner that they're turned into spectacles, making sudden celebrities out of criminals. Smiling photos of the "normal, shy" kid who gunned down 20 people, accompanied by a list of his hobbies, challenges and social media musings, are blasted from every available platform, turning him into a hero of sorts for other kids in similar circumstances. Same goes for the down-on-his-luck middle-aged guy who just needed a quick cash windfall (at someone else's expense) to get back on his feet, or the jilted woman who committed a crime of passion. Even though books and television do communicate the terror or sadness of a particular crime, they often succeed in turning unthinkable situations into movie-quality drama.
But does media coverage of these crimes incite copycat behavior? Experts disagree. Before 1982, there were barely any mass killings in the U.S. (The FBI defines mass murders as four or more people killed in one incident by one person.) Between then and 2015, there have been at least 69, 32 of which took place after 2006 [source: Follman et al.] No one is really sure why there has been such a big increase, as the killings often involve a number of variables – like the availability of guns, or the lack of treatment for mental illness (many of the mass killers were mentally ill) [source: Plumer]. Others insist that huge publicity surrounding a terrible crime validates the feelings and motives of others considering similar actions, in fact spurring them on [source: Chivers].
In 2014, a 17-year-old was arrested for planning an attack to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine school shootings. The teen's journal entries specifically referenced the Columbine shooters [source: Walsh]. Movies such as "Natural Born Killers," "The Matrix" and "A Clockwork Orange" have tragically inspired crimes, and it's a safe bet that the relative slaps on the wrist that many white-collar criminals receive fail to instill fear in the hearts of greedy businesspeople [source: Brainz].
Here's something else to keep in mind: The figures cited earlier don't include all mass killings. If you include those that take place during armed robberies or gang violence, there's been no real increase in the number of mass murders over the past 30 years [source: Fox].
So, can television shows, books and other publicly available channels turn someone into a criminal? The topic has certainly been analyzed, but it's still unclear how much of a role media exposure plays. Reliable, across-the-board studies remain elusive.
Few issues in life have clear-cut answers, and this one is no exception. Certainly, people are susceptible to outside influence -- salespeople and politicians stake their careers on this fact. However, it's a pretty huge leap from being the type of person who changes his voting party to one capable of committing a major criminal act, simply by reading a book or watching the TV news. People have free will to make their own decisions, with personality traits, complex circumstances and any number of other factors impacting whether they turn to lives of crime.