Saturday, October 07, 2006

Kopel on Copycats

A good examination of the copycat effect is only hindered by its fogginess on my stance on censorship, which I am against.

Colorado's former assistant attorney general and currently the research director for the Independence Institute in Golden, Dave Kopel has written a thoughtful column, "Kopel: Only Press Itself Can Stop Copycats" in the October 7, 2006 issue of the Rocky Mountain News. Subtitled "Killers, suicides thrive on publicity given those who perpetrated earlier crimes," Kopel asks and answers:

Do the media play a role in causing mass murders in schools and other public places? Certainly. Can anything be done about it? Perhaps.

Kopel highlights the copycat confirmations he sees in the Colorado to Pennsylvania events, and records reinforcing views of recent press statements of Regis University professor Don Lindley and commentary from Clay Cramer's early 1990s Journal of Mass Media Ethics article "Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media."

Next Kopel writes, "In the 2004 book The Copycat Effect, Loren Coleman documents, in horrific detail, how the publicity about mass murders and suicides leads to more murders and suicides." Kopel also notes I've been talking about the recent school shootings on this blog, and then goes into a summary of some of my book's contents and conclusions, plus his insights:

Copycat violence from media sensationalism dates back at least to 1888, when Jack the Ripper mutilated and murdered five prostitutes in London. Improvements in printing technology, such as typesetting machines, had led to the creation of low-cost, mass-market daily newspapers - "the penny press" - which thrived on lurid crime reporting. The immense publicity given to Jack the Ripper led to many copycat murders and rapes.

Although Coleman does not explicitly say so, his evidence suggests that a Chinese-style system of strict and comprehensive censorship would deprive would-be copycats of inspiration.

However, censoring the American media to prevent school shootings runs into the same problem as banning guns in order to prevent school shootings. An effective gun ban - including confiscation of the more than 200 million guns currently in private hands - would drastically reduce mass murders at schools, since there are no other weapons which are so easy to use and which allow one person to control a crowd at a distance. But it is unrealistic to believe that a gun ban would actually prevent guns from being plentiful on the black market, just as legally prohibited drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin are plentifully supplied on a black market that even a high school student can reach.

Similarly, it is difficult to believe that an official system of censorship in the U.S. could prevent the informal spread of news about school shootings - especially in an era when everyone has cell phones and e-mail. Moreover, official censorship would inadvertently give credibility to false rumors and hoaxes about shootings. (Of course there would also be insurmountable constitutional problems with censorship or gun bans.)

However, we know that media self-censorship does work. Almost all media voluntarily decide not to publish the names of alleged sexual assault victims, and not to show pictures of the corpses of murder victims.

Because, as Coleman details, copycat attacks often take place one month after a previous attack, or on an attack's anniversary, the media should greatly reduce or eliminate anniversary coverage, and thereby avoid giving the date an inflated importance in the mind of a sick or evil individual.

Coleman suggests that every story about a suicide or murder-suicide should include information about hot lines, or other sources of help for suicidal people.

More fundamentally, he writes, "the media has got to stop using rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, and school shootings the way it uses tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes to get people to watch their programs." He urges an end to "graphic and sensational wall-to-wall coverage and commentary of violent acts."

Because of the First Amendment, it is up to the media themselves, and not government, to search for ways to reduce the media's role the vicious cycle of copycat murders and suicides. But the evidence produced by Cramer and Coleman suggests that it is long past time for the media to begin the necessary self-examination.

Kopel's column is an excellent overview of many of these issues, and his call for media self-examination joins my own, of course. However, it appears I need to share a bit of clarification on my stance on media censorship, which I am firmly against.

As Kopel must know, in my book, the quotation he extracted comes from the middle of a paragraph that states this fact clearly, on page 256:

No one is asking the media to stop reporting the news. This is not about censorship. It is not about the right or left, conservative or liberal. It is about looking at how the stories are being presented, how the current approach has backfired and triggered the copycat effect. In essence, the media has to stop using rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, and school shootings the way it uses tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes to get people to watch their programs. Human behavior reporting impacts future human behaviors. Copycats are a consequence of a thoughtless, sensational media, and denial and ignorance of the problem will not make it go away.

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