Thursday, May 10, 2007

New Scientist on Copycats

The New Scientist magazine published on May 9, 2007, an article by Michael Bond entitled "Can media coverage of suicides inspire copycats?"

The opening paragraphs of this treatment reviewed the recent thoughts on the matter after the Virginia Tech shootings. (The publication employed the incorrect spelling of "Cho Seung-hui." The family has been clear that they use the Americanized version of the name, "Seung-Hui Cho.")

The article says, in part;

On 28 April, the president of the American Psychiatric Association, Pedro Ruiz, did what many of its members wish he had done earlier. He wrote an open letter to the news media asking editors to stop airing photos, video clips and writings of Cho Seung-hui, the student who killed 32 people and then himself at the Virginia Tech campus on 16 April. Ruiz warned that the publicity would inspire copycat suicides and killings.

Sounds far-fetched? It isn't. There is compelling evidence that extensive media coverage of a suicide is followed by an increase in the number of people taking their lives the same way. This pattern has been observed across the world. In a report released in 2000, the World Health Organization warned that repeated coverage of suicides tends to encourage suicidal preoccupations, particularly among young people.

What especially concerns the APA is that the effect applies equally to suicides that are preceded by mass murder. In the months after teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed a teacher, 12 students and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, police received reports of hundreds of related incidents, including bomb threats and shootings. Students mimicked the killers' behaviour and style of dress, and praised them on the internet.

Cho himself invoked the Columbine killers before his murder spree, hailing them as "martyrs" in the video he sent to the NBC television network. Loren Coleman, who researches suicides and school violence and has written on "suicide contagion" in his 2003 book The Copycat Effect and elsewhere, claims the unrestrained media coverage of the Virginia Tech killings has made a repeat incident very likely. "Publicity about a celebrity murder and murder-suicide serves as the spark to send a vulnerable, questioning, suicidal person in one of many directions," he says.

The APA president in his letter said the media has a responsibility to limit the power of tragedies to trigger copycat acts by "choosing not to sensationalise them". He has a battle on his hands. Attempts to limit freedom to publish on such matters tend to be shouted down, mainly by the press itself, as undemocratic or dangerous. Yet with suicides and violence, it is clear that the media can have a dangerous effect on behaviour. To publish or broadcast unrestrainedly in the face of such strong scientific evidence now seems reckless. Even pictures like the one of Cho published in New Scientist may be ill advised.
Michael Bond, "Can media coverage of suicides inspire copycats?" New Scientist, 9 May 2007, Issue 2603, page 22.

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