“How often must we see the alleged murderer’s name in print and his face shown in photographs from happier times?” asked noted criminologist James Alan Fox in a blog posting. “It is perfectly reasonable to shed light on the tragic event without a media spotlight on the alleged assailant. It is shameless, if not dangerous, to transform” an obscure individual into “an infamous somebody who may be revered and admired by a few folks on the fringe.”
In other words, does the intense media focus encourage copycat criminals who may long for similar attention? Or perhaps embolden others who now see that such diabolical acts are possible?
The answer to that question is murky. Certainly, human behavior — including the most extreme kind — is imitative; we learn from each other. But the exact mechanisms that cause people to copy the antisocial behavior of other people, including the role played by reading or hearing about a crime, aren’t well understood or studied.
Certainly, there are tantalizing clues. Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962 allegedly triggered a spike in suicide among young women. Shootings by disgruntled workers at U.S. Postal Service facilities during the 1980s became so relatively common that the phrase “going postal” entered the language. The snipers who terrorized the Washington area in 2002 may have touched off imitators in Ohio, Florida, Britain and Spain shortly thereafter.
And the spate of school shootings in the latter half of the 1990s, culminating in the horror at Columbine High School, had multiple similarities. The shooters in those cases were all white teenagers from reasonably prosperous suburbs or small towns who believed they had been snubbed or ostracized by their peers. It’s plausible that each school killer identified with and was motivated by his predecessors.
“Some people do get ideas that they hadn’t had before and are willing to try them out,” says Howard Zonana, a Yale professor of psychiatry and law. “We’re all susceptible to [media] influences, to a degree. It could be that someone is disgruntled enough and sees that he can go out in a big blast of fame.”
Fox says the media should limit the amount of information reported about criminal suspects, as is the practice in other countries, where victims and suspects’ names are shielded until after a trial. He draws the line at stories that delve deep into a suspect’s background, in which friends and neighbors describe the accused person’s hobbies, habits and personality.