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

The Nature of Copycats

So, we are left with the nagging question: Is the connection between news and crime real? The answer is a resounding "maybe." Research into the phenomenon is limited because it's difficult to link the two. For a copycat crime to be real, the perpetrator has to have been exposed to media coverage of the initial crime, which is often hard to document. Moreover, the copycat criminal has to have incorporated major elements of the first assault, such as the age or type of victim, method and even the motivation, into the copycat crime. To make matters more complicated, a copycat crime might be erroneously labeled, while a true copycat crime might go unnoticed [source: Surette].

Still, you can't ignore the legion of anecdotal evidence to suggest there is a connection. Consider the uptick in suicides among young women in 1962 after the death of Marilyn Monroe. Experts believe the 2002 Washington-area snipers might have encouraged similar crimes in Ohio, Florida, Britain and Spain. In addition, a series of school shootings in the late 1990s ended in 1999 with the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The shooters had many things in common [source: Farhi].

Such stories are just the tip of the murderous iceberg. Researchers seem to accept the link between news coverage and copycat killings. "Some people do get ideas that they hadn't had before and are willing to try them out," Howard Zonana, a Yale professor, told the Washington Post. "We're all susceptible to [media] influences, to a degree. It could be that someone is disgruntled enough and sees that he can go out in a big blast of fame."

One researcher, Dr. Park Deitz, says, on average, widespread news coverage of a mass murder causes one more mass murder within two weeks. He says some people sit, watch and read the news coverage "with guns on their hip and a hit list in their mind." Deitz says they feel a special kinship with the perpetrator and conclude that similar action is the solution to their own problems [source: Chivers].

For their part, journalists say putting mass killers under a microscope helps society by pointing out what the murderers had in common. News coverage also can serve as a vehicle for change, as was the case in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Coverage of the carnage exposed flaws in Virginia's mental health system. Columbine made teachers, counselors and school administrators more aware of troubled students [source: Farhi]. Sandy Hook has forced us all to relook at gun laws and mental health issues.

So what's a society to do? Some say the media should police itself to reduce the sensationalism of the carnage. Stop the catchy nicknames and music. Stop putting the alleged murder's name in print and refuse to show his photograph. Reporters should write and broadcast stories that promote healing and understanding.

Sociopaths read the newspaper and watch TV news all the time. It's up to responsible journalists to be mindful of what they write and say when they cover a mass killing.

Author's Note: Does news coverage of mass murders lead to more mass murders?

When a tragedy, such as the Sandy Hook shootings, occurs only miles from your doorstep, the emotions it engenders are raw and brittle. Such was the case in my small section of the world in December. Years ago, I would have relished being at the scene of the crime gathering facts and rushing them into print. That's the job of the journalist, after all. And that's what I am. Now, years removed from the daily grind of newspaper work, I don't see that attitude as healthy. Perhaps all journalists should step back when covering such tragedies. They need to know their words and images have a huge impact.

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  • Chivers, Tom. "Norway killings: does media coverage inspire copycats?" The Telegraph. July 28, 2011. (Jan. 10, 2013)
  • Coleman, Loren. "The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines." Pocket Books. 2004.
  • Farhi, Paul. "Could Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect inspire copycats?" The Washington Post. (Jan. 10, 2013)
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