How Media Coverage Of Mass Killers Provokes Copycats

posted on March 18, 2016

A new report finds that turning mass murderers into mass-media anti-heroes apparently encourages that behavior among other unstable, anti-social people. 

Who woulda thunk it? 

It’s not a particularly new, surprising or revolutionary idea. 

Criminologists have been warning of the copycat effect for decades. Indeed, a 1999 FBI report warns, “School shootings and other violent incidents that receive intense media attention can generate threats or copycat violence elsewhere ... Anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that threats increase in schools nationwide after a shooting has occurred anywhere in the United States.” By giving mass killers the infamy, attention and soapbox they crave, the media are pouring gasoline onto a fire.

Nevertheless, this new study led by Arizona State University physicist Sherry Towers is making headlines today, in part because it treats mass shootings like a germ or pathogen that spreads like a contagious disease, and even has a kind of “incubation” or “infection” period that lasts for just under two weeks. 

“We find significant evidence,” the study’s authors write, “that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past. On average, this temporary increase in probability lasts 13 days, and each incident incites at least 0.30 new incidents ... We also find significant evidence of contagion in school shootings, for which an incident is contagious for an average of 13 days, and incites an average of at least 0.22 new incidents ...” 

Again, this finding is probably no surprise to anyone. 

In 1984, in his excellent book, Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion, author and psychology professor Robert Cialdini investigated what he called the “psychology of compliance.” From fundraisers to telemarketers to used-car salesmen, he looked at all the methods various “compliance professionals” used to get people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, then categorized these methods into six key principles of influence

One of those principles was the notion of “social proof.” 

“One means we use to determine what is correct,” Cialdini wrote, “is to find out what other people think is correct.” A perfect example is laugh tracks on TV sitcoms. Even though most viewers are aware of canned laughter and find it annoying, studies have found, Cialdini wrote, that it “causes an audience to laugh longer and more often, and to rate the material as funnier” than when no laugh track is used. 

Another example is the tragedy of Catherine Genovese, who was murdered in Queens, N.Y., in 1964. A man attacked Genovese with a knife three times over a period of 35 minutes, while 38 of her neighbors witnessed the attacks from the apartment windows above—yet no one intervened, let alone called police. 

Although some tried to ascribe the tragedy to the “apathy” of urban communities, for Cialdini, it was evidence of the principle of “social proof”: The sheer number of witnesses reduced each person’s share of the responsibility to the point that “with everyone thinking that someone else will help or has helped, no one does.” 

Many studies have found a similar copycat effect with suicide—especially highly publicized suicides and especially among young people. In 1774, the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther, at the end of which Werther shoots himself with a pistol. After the book was published, many young men followed Werther’s lead; the phenomenon is now known as the “Werther effect.” The best modern-day example is the 12-percent spike in suicides that followed Marilyn Monroe’s apparently intentional drug-overdose death. 

As the Washington Post noted, “At the request of public health officials, newspapers and other outlets have largely stopped reporting on suicides unless they are deemed newsworthy. That has helped drive down suicide clustering.” 

Unfortunately, we see no such restraint when it comes to mass shootings. 

That in itself ought to be a crime. Because as you might expect, the recent “contagion” study—like others—found a positive correlation between the publicity surrounding a mass shooting and its relative influence in “infecting” others to commit mass shootings: Since shootings involving fewer victims do not typically get nearly as much media coverage, they show no sign of provoking other incidents. Only the most tragic—and therefore most publicized—mass murders seem to have this “contagious” effect. 

While this alone should be enough to convince media executives to tone down their coverage of such atrocities, there’s apparently also something more than just the power of suggestion at work: namely hero worship, fame—or infamy—and the endless media attention paid in tribute to mass murderers. The nation’s deadliest high school shooting has inspired at least 74 plots or attacks across 30 states.

The man who killed a news reporter and cameraman on live TV near Roanoke, Va., last year wrote to ABC News, “What sent me over the top was the church shooting” in Charleston, S.C. He also said he was inspired by the Virginia Tech mass murderer and the Columbine High School killers in Colorado.

As Malcolm Gladwell reports in the New Yorker, the sociologist Ralph Larkin analyzed the 12 school shootings in the U.S. in the eight years after Columbine, and found that in two-thirds of them, the killers referenced the Columbine killers by name. Moreover, sociologist Nathalie E. Paton looked at the Internet videos posted by mass shooters after Columbine and “found a recurring set of stylized images: a moment where the killer points his gun at the camera, then at his own temple, and then spreads his arms wide with a gun in each hand; the closeup; the wave goodbye at the end.” 

Indeed, in “The Columbine Effect,” Mother Jones magazine found that “the nation’s deadliest high school shooting has inspired at least 74 plots or attacks across 30 states.” 

What is it that drives these mass murderers? What can stop them? And how might their crimes be prevented? 

It’s been said that a man ascending the gallows no longer has fear of anything on earth. Clearly, since most mass murderers are suicidal—whether they do it themselves or commit “suicide by cop”—no law can stop them, any more than it can stop a suicide bomber. The only thing that can, and does, stop them is by meeting force with force in the form of a “good guy with a gun.” 

But could these unstable, dangerous, disturbed and psychotic individuals possibly be “kept on the ledge” by not offering them the reward—in the form of endless attention, infamy and “worst-ever” status—that they crave so much? 

One fact is sure: The media’s breathless, relentless coverage of mass murders—and their insistence upon naming the killers, picturing them in their most provocative poses, parsing their manifestoes and endlessly analyzing their every gripe against society in excruciating detail—isn’t working

If anything, it’s only pouring gasoline into a fire. 

For the mainstream media to do so simply to win ratings, to reap the advertising dollars that follow, and to advance the anti-gun policies they so clearly support—at the cost of innocent lives and freedoms lost—may be the most despicable and destructive crime of all.


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