Unless you live totally off the grid, it's tough to avoid the wall-to-wall media coverage of extreme criminal behavior. News outlets race each other for dirty details following a tragedy or scandal, filling their websites or broadcast hours with stories about the evidence found, motives of the criminal and replays of what happened at the crime scene. They also interview the grieving survivors, relatives of the dead and experts on criminal behavior. This can go on for days or weeks. And depending on the circumstances, there can be further wall-to-wall coverage when the jury trial begins for the accused months or years later.
It doesn't end there either. Sometimes the perpetrators release memoirs detailing past crimes that they may or may not have even been busted for. Or they might even get a reality show or movie out of the situation.
Jordan Belfort, who was notoriously immortalized in the film "The Wolf of Wall Street," bounced from 22 months in prison to the red carpet after he sold the rights to his story, which vividly recounted his many crimes, including securities fraud, solicitation of prostitutes and rampant drug use. Belfort was criticized for pocketing at least $1 million for the screen rights when he still owed about $100 million to victims of his financial schemes [source: Child]. Jodi Arias was convicted of killing her lover in the shower and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole in 2015. Ever since news of her 2008 crime broke she has enjoyed extensive media coverage and was the sex-kitten subject of the 2013 Lifetime made-for- television movie, "Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret" [source: Kiefer].
People probably aren't motivated to pursue a life of crime in hopes of getting a book deal or a C-level movie. Rather, glorification of criminal behavior is often criticized for making crime seem sexy and giving would-be criminals someone to idolize, or even emulate. So, do these critics have a leg to stand on?
The Glorification Process of Criminal Behavior
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.
Stopping Copycat Killings
Since copycat crimes are committed by a tiny percent of the population, it's obvious that not everyone is susceptible, with certain personality profiles more likely to engage in such attention and/or money-getting behavior. "We're talking about people who have been marginalized by society, rejected by their peers and haven't seen any legitimate pathway to be successful," explains Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D., a psychologist who runs three public mental health clinics. "When we have a highly publicized event in newspapers and on the TV, we will see these copycat activities because it gives them ideas about pathways that they might take in order to achieve their goals." Goals vary by criminal, but Dr. Seifert further explains that many copycats long to be recognized for their acts and "belong" to a group, even if they're keeping company with others who've committed heinous crimes.
Some experts think the solution is for the media to tone down coverage, and only report the bare-bones facts, similar to how teen suicides are now handled versus in the 1980s. "You might not have noticed, but the mass media rarely reports on suicides, particularly teen suicides," sociologist Zeynep Tufecki explained in a 2012 article in the Atlantic. "When it does, the coverage is careful, understated, and dampened. This is no accident: Following guidelines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Mental Health, the media carefully and voluntarily avoids sensationalizing such deaths especially among teenagers." Although teen suicide continues to be a serious concern, the rate in 2013 was 8.3 teens per 100,000, versus 11.1 per 100,000 in 1988. However, this is an increase from a low of 6.7 per 100,000 in 2007 [source: Child Trends Data Bank].
Tufecki advocated similar restraint for reporting on mass shootings. For example, she recommended that police and media withhold the identity of perpetrator(s), to minimize the "idol" effect, as well as the strategies and equipment used to carry out the crime. After all, how can someone become a copycat if they lack the information or "inspiration" to mimic the crime? She even said media should not interview grieving family members and survivors to "reduce the sense of spectacle and trauma" [source: Tufecki].
Would this strategy really work? The public has a right to know what's going on in the world, and post-tragedy criticisms have actually helped to effect pretty powerful change. Airlines made major overhauls in security and other protocol following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and mental health reform became a serious issue in Virginia following a shooting spree in which a Virginia Tech student killed 32 people and himself [sources: Taylor, Farhi].
Figuring out how to eliminate criminal instincts is an age-old, probably unanswerable question, but experts hope to encourage more to take alternate paths. "If we find ways to help people be contributing parts of society, we take away their incentive to become rich and famous in the wrong ways," says Seifert. "We can either ignore the problem and let people continue to do awful things, or we as a society can jump in and help these young people take a different path."
Author's Note: Do TV shows and book deals encourage criminal behavior?
Sadly, we live in a world where bad behavior and poor choices are often rewarded, even lauded. The need for early intervention for people at risk of embracing crime is desperate and necessary. So, when will the system catch up with the undeniable truth?
More Great Links
- Brainz. "15 Films That Inspired Real Life Crimes." 2015 (April 8, 2015) http://brainz.org/15-films-inspired-real-life-crimes/
- Child, Ben. "Real-life Wolf of Wall Street says his life of debauchery 'even worse' than in film." The Guardian. Feb. 28, 2014 (April 8, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/28/wolf-of-wall-street-jordan-belfort-sex-drugs
- Child Trends Data Bank. "Teen Homicide, Suicide and Firearm Deaths." March, 2015 (April 13, 2015) http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=teen-homicide-suicide-and-firearm-deaths
- Chivers, Tom. "Norway killings: does media coverage inspire copycats?" The Telegraph. July 28, 2011 (April 13, 2015). http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100098853/norway-killings-does-media-coverage-cause-copycats/
- Farhi, Paul. "A murky question from Colorado: Does media coverage inspire copycats?" The Washington Post. July 23, 2012 (April 8,2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/putting-a-face-on-evil/2012/07/23/gJQALXSK5W_story.html
- Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan. "A Guide to Mass Shootings in America." Mother Jones. May 24, 2014 (April 15, 2015) http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map|
- Hyman, Vicki. "'Real Housewives' sentencing: Do 'Son of Sam' laws apply to Joe and Teresa Giudice?" NJ Advance Media. Oct. 3, 2014 (April 8, 2015) http://www.nj.com/entertainment/celebrities/index.ssf/2014/10/joe_and_teresa_giudice_sentencing_son_of_sam.html
- Kiefer, Michael. "Jodi Arias sentenced to natural life in prison." The Arizona Republic. April 13, 2015 (April 14, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/13/jodi-arias-sentencing/25691575/
- Lifetime. "Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret." 2015 (April 8, 2015) http://www.mylifetime.com/movies/jodi-arias-dirty-little-secret
- Plumer, Brad. "Graph of the day: Perhaps mass shootings aren't becoming more common." Dec. 17, 2012 (April 13, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/17/graph-of-the-day-perhaps-mass-shootings-arent-becoming-more-common/
- Seifert, Kathryn Ph.D., psychologist and CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services, Maryland, Telephone interview. April 6, 2015.
- Taylor, Alicia B. and Sara Steedman. "The Evolution of Airline Security Since 9/11." International Foundation for Protection Officers. December 2003 (April 8, 2015) http://www.ifpo.org/resource-links/articles-and-reports/protection-of-specific-environments/the-evolution-of-airline-security-since-911/
- Tufecki, Zeynep. "The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders. Here's How." The Atlantic. Dec. 19, 2012 (April 8, 2015) http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/12/the-media-needs-to-stop-inspiring-copycat-murders-heres-how/266439/
- Walsh, James; Erin Adler and Steve Brandt. "'Columbine effect': Alarm is rising over copycats." Star Tribune. May 3, 2014 (April 8, 2015) http://www.startribune.com/local/257817551.html