Saturday, December 15, 2007

Colorado Vortex

Colorado should understand that while it is often noted that deadly "random" shooting events are rare, no one in Colorado can avoid the fact that media-driven rage-filled rampages visit their state often.

On December 15, 2007, Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, opens a debate in the Rocky Mountain News, in the vortex location where people are currently reading the most about their church-related shootings. This is good. Hopefully, Kopel's discussion will continue beyond the pain of these new episodes and, at least, make some inroads into the local editorial decisions on reporting.

The two church-involved shootings of December 9th were perpetrated by a young man who lived a mere 13 miles from Columbine. Columbine (known just by the Colorado location name) is today an iconic and infamous event, which happened on April 20, 1999. It is a blueprint for too many mass shootings in schools, universities, malls, churchs, fast food sites, and other locations since then. Colorado's newest dead suicidal-homicidal shooter studied Columbine as well as last April's Virginia Tech event and others.

But sadly Colorado has been a frequent canvas for copycats.

As far as roadmaps are considered, the invasion of a school by a child molester who tied up and then shot students at Bailey, Colorado, served as the model for what happened a few days later among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, September 27, 2006, at Bailey, Colorado (39 miles from Columbine), an older male walked into an English classroom at the Platte Canyon High School, and took six young female students hostage. After releasing four hostages, one at a time, the students began telling the police that sexual assaults were occurring. As the situation neared a 4:00 pm deadline and discussions broke down, a police SWAT team blew open the door to Room 206. The suicidal shooter fired a handgun at entering SWAT officers, and then at 16-year old Emily Keyes, fatally wounding her. The gunman then killed himself. The last hostage was saved. A suicide note from the shooter was found on September 28th, and publicized soon thereafter.

In a virtual mirror copycat of the Bailey event, five days later, on the morning of Monday, October 2, 2006, an older male with a child molestation history took hostages at West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He tied up ten, and eventually killed five girls (aged 7–13). In the end, he too took his own life.

Few nationally may remember that Bailey precursor, although at the time, it was shown wall-to-wall on television as if it was the second-coming of Columbine.

It should also be recalled that during press conferences held immediately after both the Bailey and the Amish incidents, we learned that the doors at both schools had been barricaded/chained so the hostages could not get out and the police could not get in. Such information from the Bailey shooter probably assisted the Amish school gunman, and it seems to have served as a blueprint for the VA Tech killer who would chain the doors to escape and entry as part of his April 16, 2007 massacre plans.

School shootings in Colorado are recalled, especially Columbine, but the memory may fade with regard to how Colorado has been involved in other copycat waves.

December 24, 2007 will be the 10th anniversary of a "going postal" situation at the General Mail Facility in Denver. Seven people were wounded, and fortunately no one was killed in that mass shooting. People chuckle and think "going postal" events were something that humorously happened in the 1980s. Besides them being deadly serious, they still occur in contemporary reminders and live on in other types of shootings. Postal workers in Denver processing and delivering Christmas mail this year, no doubt, won't forget what occurred there a mere ten years ago.

The lessons of media glorification of death was taught once before in Colorado.

In 1980-1981, a dozen teenagers died by suicide over a period of 18 months in Loveland, Colorado. The suicide cluster was fanned along by too much attention in the newspapers to the methods of the suicides, and not enough to communication and prevention. It was the copycat effect at work at its worst, taking the lives of young people by their own hand (with the modeling assistance from the media).

The Colorado media then decided to take a hard look at how they were reporting on adolescent suicide. Things changed. Front page stories disappeared, sensationalized articles vanished, the graphic means of suicides were deleted, and suicides decreased.

It is not too soon for the nation to begin to seriously scrutinize how it is subtly and overtly promoting the current waves of mass shootings. Dave Kopel is correct to begin this serious self-examination in Colorado.

Here is his thoughtful column on the subject:

The way the media cover an event influences whether there will be repetitions. For example, if a fan runs onto the field during a baseball game, the broadcast cameras usually avoid showing pictures of the fan. The TV producers know that the fan on the field is seeking attention, and that, presumably, getting his picture on television will reward him. Moreover, broadcasting the man's antics would encourage copycats.

Killing time at a baseball game is a tiny misdeed, compared to killing people, but many media decisions have the effect of encouraging copycat murders.

Last April, The Denver Post published on its front page five "glamour shots" that the Virginia Tech murderer had taken of himself, and sent to NBC. On Wednesday, the Post ran a front-page picture of the young man who killed two at a youth missionary center in Arvada and two others at a church in Colorado Springs, along with very large-type excerpts from the killer's rantings. In the first sentence, the killer compared himself to the Virginia Tech killer.

The Post might has well have a run a sidebar: "Are you a hate-filled sociopath? Are you upset because you have an intense feeling of superiority to other people, even though you have accomplished little or nothing? Your hateful screeds will not meet our standards for publication as a letter to the editor. However, if you perpetrate a mass murder, we will put your picture on our front page, publish your writings there, too, and do our part to ensure that your name is remembered forever."

The above paragraph is not the formal policy of the Post and of much of the mainstream media, but it amounts to the de facto policy.

In vivid contrast, the front page of Wednesday's Rocky Mountain News featured a photo of the students at Youth with A Mission in fervent group prayer, forgiving the killer. Both front pages will encourage imitation.

Loren Coleman's book The Copycat Effect convincingly proves that sensational media coverage of murders and suicides leads to additional murders and suicides. Coleman's weblog,, suggests that the Colorado attacks may have been triggered by media coverage of a similar attack on an Omaha, Neb., shopping mall a few days before.

This week, KHOW radio talk-show hosts Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman led an excellent discussion of media responsibility in coverage of publicity-seeking murderers, including a good interview with Rocky publisher John Temple on Tuesday, in which Temple strongly defended media publication of a killer's name and picture.

Temple argued that newspapers should be edited with the ordinary reader in mind, and not with a view to a small number of sociopaths. But in fact, newspapers should sometimes be edited with the potential criminal in mind. For example, during the NATO meeting at the Broadmoor in 2003, the papers published some general facts about the security precautions. But if someone had leaked detailed security plans, which might have been useful to potential assassins, I strongly doubt that the papers would have published them - although the papers might have written about the leak while leaving out the details.

Even if one grants the arguments that publication of a publicity-minded killer's name and picture serve a public interest that trumps the risk of encouraging copycats, there are some standards that every responsible media outlet could adopt, to at least reduce the risk:

1. If a killer was seeking infamy, neither his picture nor his words should ever appear on the front page. The front page, because it seen at newsstands, convenience stores, and other locations, even by people who don't read the newspaper, has a publicity value that far exceeds any other part of the newspaper.

2. Temple argues that photos help readers understand that people who do terrible things are often very ordinary-looking. If so, a single photo on a single day is sufficient.

3. Never run a photo or video which the killer has chosen for his own publicity. Similarly, never run a photo of the killer "in action" - as in a surveillance tape. Such photos are enticing to sociopaths.

4. Do publish a photo showing the disgusting post-mortem condition of the killer, with half his face blown off after he has killed himself or been shot by a good citizen. The photo should appear, not in the printed paper, but on the newspaper's Web site and behind a warning page. Such photos would deglamourize the perpetrators.

5. Although there is some news value in reporting the killer's name initially, there is no need to use the name incessantly. Talk shows, TV programs, and follow-up news articles should follow the good example of Caplis and Silverman. Refer to the killer instead as "the coward," or some other term. ~ Dave Kopel, "KOPEL: Reducing the risk of copycat killers - How papers can avoid glorifying perpetrators, Rocky Mountain News, Saturday, December 15, 2007.

1 comment:

Thomas M. Cosgrove said...

Excellent points, which should be a mainstay of any "Ethics in Journalism" curriculum.
Why do the media comtinue to provide SCRIPTS for more destructive behavior through irresponsible reporting?