By Jeff Knox
(November 8, 2017) After the senseless slaughter of innocents at a Baptist church in Texas, coming on the heels of the attack on a country music concert in Las Vegas last month, the American people have been inundated with non-stop reporting, speculation, posturing, and finger-pointing from the media and politicians. In the hours and days right after an attack, news programs showed continuous loops of video from the scene, repeating estimates of the dead and wounded, and using phrases like “the deadliest mass shooting” or “the worst mass murder,” while ranking this latest horror against the number killed in previous horrors. They talk with witnesses or anyone else even remotely connected with the tragedy, and engage in endless, often inane speculation about motives and weapons. As soon as they get a hint as to who the perpetrator might have been, pictures of the killer, along with tidbits from his social media accounts are added to the crime scene video loops and pictures of victims. Invariably, within minutes of the attack, someone will say something about the need for stricter gun control laws to prevent these sorts of massacres, even though they have no idea whether the proposed laws might have made any difference – as if a bit of paperwork with felony penalties would make a difference to a mind twisted enough to put gun sights on a child.
The “reporting” goes on for days or weeks, with timelines, diagrams, victim counts, news conferences from the scene, detailed coroner’s reports, and interviews with former law enforcement officials, all on a continuous loop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with other “news” slowly filtering into the cycle as the “reporting” moves from the actual crime to detailed examination of the perpetrator, the victims, the environment, the motive, and the failures of the system that allowed a lunatic the means to carry out such a heinous act. And of course they will talk with politicians who want to use the atrocity as a springboard to advance some restrictive firearm legislation, because we must “do something.”
Occasionally, the media talking heads interview an expert on mental health who points out that most of these violent lunatics are motivated by a desire to be famous. According to the occasional suicide expert, the vast majority of mass shootings are actually elaborate suicides in which the suicidal person has decided that he didn’t want to die a “nobody,” and hits on the idea of becoming famous in his death. Then the expert will explain that these suicidal lunatics invariably get the idea for writing themselves into the history books, directly from the media reports of previous murder-suicide events. Over and over again we have seen these experts explain that repeating the names of the murderers and tallying and comparing their body-counts, feeds the homicidal/suicidal ideation of other similarly disturbed individuals.
The first thing the program will do after the interview – or sometimes as part of the interview – will be to run down a list of the most prolific mass murderers, showing their pictures, and comparing their victims, as if they are reporting on athletes and their sports scores. In Silicon Valley they call it gamification.
It has long been recognized that mentally unstable people can be tipped over the edge by external factors, and in the case of suicides and rampage attacks, media attention has a significant impact on future events. When Marilyn Monroe overdosed on sleeping pills suicide rates spiked by twelve percent for the year. In fact, when anyone commits suicide, the heavier the media coverage, the higher the eventual death-toll will be. Suicide experts call this phenomenon “suicide contagion,” and they have developed reporting guidelines for minimizing the impact of suicide contagion. Here’s what the Department of Health and Human Services says about it:
The risk for suicide contagion as a result of media reporting can be minimized by factual and concise media reports of suicide. Reports of suicide should not be repetitive, as prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion. Suicide is the result of many complex factors; therefore media coverage should not report oversimplified explanations such as recent negative life events or acute stressors. Reports should not divulge detailed descriptions of the method used to avoid possible duplication. Reports should not glorify the victim and should not imply that suicide was effective in achieving a personal goal such as gaining media attention. In addition, information such as hot-lines or emergency contacts should be provided for those at risk for suicide.
By focusing so much attention on mass murders, the media turn them into macabre celebrities. And weak-minded people are inspired to follow their example. Many of these murderers have collections of media reports from previous attacks, and engage in a sick game of one-upmanship, competing to go down in history as the “worst,” the “deadliest,” the “sickest,” etc., and the media plays right along with the sick score-keeping.
Sick people exist in every society, and there are aspects of our culture that serve to feed and encourage their dysphoria. We can’t completely eliminate the factors that promote severe antisocial behaviors, but there are steps that can be taken to identify and treat it, and to interrupt the obvious cycle that we see in mass murder atrocities.
The media has already widely adopted the recommended practices to reduce suicide contagion, and it has proven to be effective. A famous example is Seattle grunge-rocker Kurt Cobain who fronted the band Nirvana. His suicide received light coverage, and suicide rates actually dropped in 1994. They need to employ similar practices when dealing with mass murder events.
A resolution aimed at this issue, called the “Don’t Inspire Evil” initiative, has been offered several times at meetings of the Society of Professional Journalists, but has failed to secure enough support for its addition into their Code of Ethics.
Until the media reforms the way they report on these atrocities, we must expect that each one will be followed by others.
We can’t banish evil with new laws, but we can slow its propagation by not feeding it. As Margaret Thatcher said; “We must starve terrorists of the oxygen of publicity which they seek.”
Is that really possible in this age of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle?
If we must “Do something!” can’t we look at something that might actually work?