A murky question from Colorado: Does media coverage inspire copycats?

July 23, 2012

Within hours of the first gunshots, a nobody had become somebody. James Eagan Holmes, the young man accused of killing 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, had a name, a face and a backstory: graduate-school dropout, high-school soccer player, loner.

The news media’s focus on Holmes also inspired some familiar criticism. Was the attention to the details of an alleged mass killer’s life not just wrong but also potentially lethal? Could the media’s gaze inspire the next nobody to commit a similar act in a sick attempt to become somebody, too?

“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.

“It doesn’t help us understand what happened,” Fox said in an interview. “It doesn’t help us predict which individuals will do the same thing.” Besides, he says, “It adds insult to injury to victims if you make the perpetrator seem like an icon or larger than life in the eyes of others.”

But Fox acknowledges that it’s difficult to prove that intensive reporting about an infamous crime leads to more of the same.

“The empirical evidence isn’t strong,” he said. “It’s really all anecdotal.” It’s hard to know, for example, if a copycat would have simply committed a different crime to express his inner demons or no crime at all if he hadn’t heard of the first crime, Fox said.

What’s more, it’s unclear why some crimes may lead to copycatting while others do not. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) last year, after all, didn’t propel a wave of similar attacks on politicians.

Nor is it certain why a “wave” or “cluster” of crimes suddenly stops. School shootings have waxed and waned for more than 100 years; shootings in postal facilities are all but unknown these days.

Journalists may also take issue with Fox’s assertion that extensive reporting about alleged criminals has no socially beneficial effect. Such reporting has helped mental health professionals identify the factors that mass killers seem to have in common, such as personal failures or disappointment, social isolation or untreated mental issues.

Extensive reporting about Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 before killing himself, helped expose flaws in Virginia’s mental health system, leading to reforms. Similarly, reporting about Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris likely gave school counselors, therapists, parents and teachers a heightened awareness of troubled teens.

“The first question people ask is what kind of monster did this?” said David J. Krajicek, a former crime reporter for the New York Daily News and vice president of Criminal Justice Journalists, an organization of crime and court reporters. “That’s our job as journalists.”

Adds Krajicek, “These aren’t loving portraits [of the accused]. We put these people under a microscope to figure out their pathologies. They’re an object lesson for the rest of us.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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