Reducing the risk of copycat killers

How papers can avoid glorifying perpetrators

Dec. 15, 2007

by David Kopel

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, copycateffect.blogspot.com, 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.

Correction: My previous column praised a recent column by David Sirota. The author was actually David Ignatius

 

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