Does news coverage of mass murders lead to more mass murders?

Monkey See, Monkey Do

At first, he was a nobody, a young everyman. Like most of us, he walked the streets unnoticed, another pedestrian on life's sidewalk. But on a July day in 2012, the accused gunman became somebody when he walked into an Aurora, Colo., theater and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. Within days, the world knew all about James Holmes. Reporters described him as a loner, a graduate-school dropout and a former high-school soccer player. They probed into every dark corner of Holmes's life trying to learn as much as they could about the alleged shooter.

Was all the attention inadvertently inspiring the next person to commit a similar atrocity? At the time, many critics thought so. "How often must we see the alleged murderer's name in print and his face shown in photographs from happier times?" asked James Alan Fox, a world-famous criminologist, in a blog post. He continued, "It is perfectly reasonable to shed light on the tragic event without a media spotlight on the alleged assailant. It is shameless, if not dangerous, to transform an obscure nobody into an infamous somebody who may be revered and admired by a few folks on the fringe."

Let's get something straight. Copycat crimes are not a 21st-, or even a 20th-century, invention. The first such crimes were documented during the late 19th century, when sensational cases, including the Jack the Ripper murders, riveted the world's attention [source: Helfgott]. In the 1920s, concern that media outlets were in some way influencing people to commit crimes sparked investigations and censorship drives [source: Surette].

In 2004, Loren L. Coleman, in the book "The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines," argued that the news media encourage others to imitate destructive behavior. The media's "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude, Coleman writes, leads to copycat killings. "The media are driven by stories of death," Coleman writes. "The media, like a monster octopus looking for its next victim, searches around trying to figure out from what hole its next meal will come from. It is this kind of media atmosphere that allows the copycat effect to thrive ... " [sources: Coleman, Kopel].

In the world of commercial journalism, the "if it bleeds it leads" mantra is all too common. The greater the carnage, the greater the coverage. It's the nature of news, a price, I suppose, we pay for living in a free society. Hence, Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams and Matt Lauer descend on a tiny New England community that no one had heard of before. Experts say that such overreporting plays straight into the perpetrator's tendency for recognition.