In an article published today by FrontPage Magazine, Daniel Greenfield makes a very compelling case that graphic media reports of suicides (and by simple extension, mass shootings) inevitably inspire copycat behavior. This phenomenon has been called the “Werther effect” — named after the unfortunate protagonist of a 1774 novel credited with inspiring an international rash of copycat suicides.
By this understanding, at least some of the recent spate of mass shootings — perhaps even the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — could well have been inspired by the extensive media coverage given to earlier mass attacks. Absent such coverage, they might well not have taken place.
It’s hard to argue with Greenfield’s logic — especially given the examples he presents.
We have an abnormal spike in train deaths (both murders and suicides) since the New York Post last month prominently featured the photo of a man pushed in front of a subway train — taken moments before his death.
In Germany, train suicides increased 175% after the airing of a “suicide-prevention” TV program that repeatedly showed a young man jumping in front of a train.
Back in the US, suicides spiked after Marilyn Monroe killed herself.
In fact, there’s a good argument that one of the major drivers of the recent rash of mass shootings in the United States is our media coverage of such events. Who in America hasn’t seen the photos of the creepy-looking, orange-haired “Dark Knight” shooter? Most of us simply thought, “That guy’s crazy.” But as Greenfield points out, such photos and coverage have inspired “Holmies” who wear plaid and sip Slurpies — in imitation of the killer.
The vast majority of such imitators and “fans” may be harmless. But there are a few imitators who aren’t. And it only takes one copycat to produce another movie theater shooting.
Or another Sandy Hook.
Congress Should Pass a Resolution Calling Upon All Major Media to Voluntarily Adopt a “Sandy Hook Media Code.”
We need to change the way that such incidents are reported. Given that we have freedom of the press, this can be appropriately handled through a voluntary commitment, rather than a coercive law.
Congress, the public, and the President of the United States should publicly ask all major media outlets to get on board. Reasonable changes in media behavior, if adopted, would clearly do more to prevent future Sandy Hooks than — for example — Dianne Feinstein’s proposed “assault weapons ban.”
I would like to propose an initial draft of such a media code. This can undoubtedly be improved upon, but it’s a start.
The Sandy Hook Media Code for Reducing Mass Shootings [Draft]
1. As a responsible media outlet, we choose to take voluntary action to avoid encouraging those who would commit mass murders like the school shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School. We understand that there is a real and significant copycat effect that can be and often is prompted by media coverage that raises the perpetrators of such crimes to fame.
We understand that this effect can been seen in the abnormal number of train deaths following the December 2012 New York subway shoving murder, in the similar 175% increase in German train suicides following the debut of “Death of a Student,” and in the 197 people above the statistical norm who committed suicide following coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide.
We acknowledge that the “Werther effect” is real. We accept that as journalists, we have a responsibility to our communities, to exercise voluntary restraint that will help reduce murders such as those which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
We also understand that many mass shooters have a motive of “making a name for themselves” or of “going down in history,” and that removing this possibility can also remove a significant motivation for such killings and literally save the lives of school children and other innocent persons.
Therefore, we make these specific commitments:
1. As a responsible media outlet, we will agree to leave unpublished the names of those who commit mass shootings. Instead, we will refer to such murderers as (for example) “the Sandy Hook shooter.” We will thus help deny these killers the personal fame and notoriety that they eagerly seek.
2. As a responsible media outlet, we will agree not to publish photographs of those who commit mass shootings. We will thus help deny these killers the personal fame and notoriety that they eagerly seek.
3. As a responsible media outlet, we will focus more on victims’ stories of their tragedy, than on stories of the killer. This does not mean that we won’t inform the public of the killers’ situations. It doesn’t mean we won’t try to understand their motives. But it means that our reporting of such incidents will focus much more on victims than on murderers.
4. We will avoid graphic and detailed descriptions of what killers wore, what they looked like, or what their grievances may have been. Whatever their grievances against society, their parents or their classmates or co-workers, they did not and can not justify such crimes.
We understand that the names and photos of such killers may still leak out to the public; but we will set an example of refusing to participate in such leaks.
[We understand that “assault weapons” have so far been used in roughly 25% of mass shootings in the United States. We also understand that an assault weapon ban like that proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein would do nothing to reduce the number of such weapons available in the United States. Such a ban — which has been deemed by some to be unlikely to pass — would only prevent the sale of new weapons.
We also understand, based upon the experience of Australia, that even a far more expensive ban providing for a “buyback” or weapons confiscation would likely remove no more than 20% of such weapons from circulation. Therefore, a much more stringent ban than any even contemplated by our legislators could hope to touch only 5% of such crimes.
We understand that our actions, therefore, are likely to have a stronger effect on deterring school shootings and other mass shootings than Senator Feinstein’s proposed ban, or any other assault weapons ban that Congress might pass.
For these reasons, we adopt and will practice this Code of Behavior, in memory of those who have perished at Sandy Hook Elementary School and elsewhere.]*
[* It has been suggested by one commentator that the last four paragraphs should be removed.]
Some will undoubtedly resist such a Code as an infringement of the First Amendment, the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Their point is not entirely without merit. However, it is clear that the way in which our media has reported these crimes has so far been conducive to inspiring copycat murders. Simply put, some of these murders are happening because deranged individuals are copying what they see in the newspaper, on major web sites, and especially, on TV.
Some gun control advocates have been quoted as saying they aren’t pushing for “gun control” — they are simply pushing for “gun responsibility.”
In a world in which media behavior is clearly contributing to the deaths of our children, it is high time to ask for some media responsibility as well.