America’s Foremost Criminal Profiler Warns Media Coverage Causes School Shootings

Let’s start with a basic article from Psychology Today.

School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.

There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influences copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Contrast this trend with no increase in suicides in the week following a media strike that unintentionally suppresses such coverage.

The same is true of school massacres. On Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 1996 a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates and severely wounded another student. Subsequent media coverage obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of Feb 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. Yet another on March 13. Along with other similarities, more than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource.

Except to see the following on CNN some time between armageddon and doomsday. (via Ace)

Dr Park Dietz has an uneasy relationship with publicity, and it’s not just because of his deep, abiding familiarity with the psychological make-up of serial killers, sexual deviants, stalkers and mass murderers.

For years, America’s foremost criminal profiler – who has testified at the trials of such criminals as John Hinckley, Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrea Yates – would not let reporters give details of his home or office. He did not want his photograph in newspapers or magazines.

Twice, he appeared on CNN in the middle of a sensational murder case and warned the network that if it didn’t tone down their coverage it would lead to further crimes. On another occasion, he told a production team from 20/20, a magazine show on ABC, that he would not participate in a programme reconstructing a workplace shooting because he feared their approach would encourage copycats. The programme went out on a Friday; by the following Tuesday there had been two fresh mass murders in other parts of the United States.

“Here’s my hypothesis,” he said. “Saturation-level news coverage of mass murder causes, on average, one more mass murder in the next two weeks.” The reason, he says, has something to do with the USA’s size. In a country so large the likelihood of one or two people snapping becomes quite high.

“It’s not that the news coverage made the person paranoid, or armed, or suicidally depressed,” Dietz said. “But you’ve got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their lap and a hit list in their mind. They feel willing to die. When they watch the coverage of a school shooting or a workplace mass murder, it only takes one or two of them to say – ‘that guy is just like me, that’s the solution to my problem, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow’. The point is that the media coverage moves them a little closer to the action.

“Is that causation? Legally, maybe not. Epidemiologically, yes,” he said.

This also takes us back to the David Philips study in 1974 which tracked copycat suicides. And keep in mind that school shootings are murder-suicides. The assailants often kill themselves or expect to be killed.

 In the month after actress Marilyn Monroe’s naked body was found lifeless next to an empty bottle of Nembutal sleeping pills, the number of suicides among Americans jumped 12 percent (197 more deaths than normal). In fact, spikes followed 26 out of 33 suicides reported on the front page of the New York Times between 1948 and 1967 — a total of more than 2000 “excess” deaths. The conclusion drawn by David Phillips, the researcher who discovered this statistical pattern, was that suicide indeed can be contagious.

After he discovered the Werther Effect, Phillips began wondering if more than just news reports of suicides might prompt certain individuals to kill themselves. He wondered if fictional suicides had a similar effect, as had been reported following the publication of Goethe’s novel. Very few studies of this question had ever been done, he discovered, so he came up with a plan. “I found a soap-opera magazine which listed soap-opera plots.” Studying that, he came up with a timeline for when various fictional TV characters had killed themselves on the airwaves. “You know, there are people who identify like crazy with these soap-opera characters,” he points out. “In some cases, people track the fictional life more closely than they track anybody else’s life.”

Phillips says when he looked to see whether suicide rates in the United States went up after the soap-opera suicides, he did find a correlation. “But it was just a couple of years’ worth of suicide stories, so it was not a lot of data.” He says a much better study was done by some German colleagues who looked at what happened in Germany after the airing of a four-part miniseries. Each part of the series opened with the same ten-minute segment in which a suicidal young man lay down in front of a train and got run over by it. “My German colleagues said to the television network, look, are you aware that there are studies by Phillips showing that this is a potentially dangerous thing? And the [German] network said, too bad. Freedom of the press.” Phillips isn’t criticizing freedom of the press. He points out that “in South Africa, we didn’t have freedom of the press, so I value it highly.”

But the fact is that the German researchers were able to show that in the months after the fictional railroad suicides, actual railroad suicides climbed significantly. “And that was particularly true for young males,” Phillips says. “Then a year later, this television network decided to show this miniseries again, and my colleagues again pointed out the findings.” When they were ignored, they once again studied the consequences and found another railroad-suicide spike.

Phillips says an Austrian study has shown what happens when the press does pay attention to the impact of publicity about suicides. “People were jumping from the subway platform in front of subway cars. And this was being written up on the front pages of the newspapers. These researchers went and said, ‘Look, are you aware that studies by Phillips and other people show that when you newspapers publicize this stuff big-time, there’s this spike in subsequent suicides?’ And the publishers in Vienna, who were the main publishers for all of Austria, said, ‘No, we didn’t know that.’ ” Unlike the German TV programmers, they agreed that a change in policies might be worthwhile. “They said, ‘Okay, we will no longer carry such stories on the front page. We’ll bury them on the back page,’ ” Phillips says. They also stopped running photos with the stories and tried to avoid using the word “suicide” in the headlines. After the two biggest newspapers in Austria changed their pattern of reporting, “What the researchers showed was that the number of subway suicides dropped precipitously.” It was a different way of studying imitative suicide — but it confirmed his findings, Phillips believes.

Now here’s the big question, in light of what you just read, the media seems extremely enthusiastic about protecting children by violating the Second Amendment. They should be equally enthusiastic about violating the First Amendment by banning coverage of school shootings.

  • JacksonPearson

    "School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them."

    So is RAP, violent video games, gang bangers, head shrink drugs, movies, and yes, even the term via Barack Obama, "Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight," and {{{{gasp}}}} tone it down race baiters.

    • Robert Payne

      Why do you say that rap, violent video games, and movies are all a contagion? All of those things are a form of media same as books and I have read dozens of of books that mention and go in to great detail about murder so does that mean that we should start banning books because there might be some people who are emotionally disturbed and will maybe find inspiration from these novels? Seems pretty stupid to me. But so does putting restrictions on things like rap, violent video games, and movies.

  • Thomas Wells

    Psychoses spread through the air-waves.

  • κατεργάζομαι

    The First Amendment's guarantee "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of…the press".

    Yet note how the press in concert with the Obama administration are abusing their First Amendment's guarantee – to trample and abridge the 2nd Amendment rights of others.

    Interestingly, two years ago, Barack Obama signed the Press Freedom Act , he then refused to take questions from the press.

    • Frank Lee DeRainged

      You dont need a law. Just stop watching the networks you dummies!

      JUST STOP WATCHING IT!

      They will soon get the message when the ratings start to fall.

  • carrie

    "Normal " people don't follow the patterns though.
    There has to be a mental illness involved. Call it a pre- existing murder-suicide condition ?
    The typical male "loner " also seems to be filling a need for attention or getting revenge for being ignored/invisible/awkward in society .

    • Looking4Sanity

      Indeed. Whether you choose to label it sickness or evil, it is the root of the problem. If food were determined to be a trigger for psychotic behavior, would we ban food? Further proof that rational thought has no place in politics these days.

    • Nick D Ex-Lefty

      Thankfully the overwhelming majority of us, so far, are normal whether armed or not. So your murder-suicide condition, or precondition makes sense. Still, voluntarily burying these stories on the "back page" and mentioning them in passing on TV "news" segments would clearly diminish copycat behavior. It would also be a rational alternative to the wild speculating and hucksterism that has become the norm for what passes as reporting. Too many media outlets are "flooding the zone" to push their political and sociological agenda as well as increase ratings. For many purveyors of Newsertainment, politicians and social activist groups, the more chaos generated, the better. More Government intervention in our lives is always the chimerical answer to every crisis.

  • Viet Vet

    The War Against Boys – Christina Hoff Sommers – Simon & Schuster 2000

  • sflbib

    "They should be equally enthusiastic about violating the First Amendment by banning coverage of school shootings."

    Just like they VOLUNTARILY on their own banned all words that had even the hint of judgmentalism.

  • CatK

    Interesting and not surprising. Having worked in schools, behavioral contagion of all types is a frequent occurrence. Regarding the media: There is plenty of room between reporting what happened (with links to more info for those desiring further information) and the grotesque 24/7 coverage happening this past week . The media has intruded on the private lives of those who lost loved ones and has served as a political soap box for Obama to disarm the law abiding citizenry. Obviously, the media is out for ratings and nothing else and Obama is out to further his agendas. Neither cares about the children and adults murdered. Neither seems to care at all about mental health issues.
    BTW, it is as inaccurate to campaign against antidepressants or other psychotropic medications as it is to campaign against guns. Both have their place. Medications save lives and restore dignity to many lives. They need to be prescribed by well trained medical doctors with follow-up and sometimes hospitalization (the last option has been severely limited by our "progressive" society). Perhaps, if quality mental health treatment was more accessible, those in need could receive appropriate help and such tragic events might be avoided.

  • John

    People are made up of three parts [for a lack on my part of a better way to put it] Body – Mind – Spirit , most people operate exclusively in the mind and body , the spirit is of man is either ignored or discounted in some way , marginalized at best — The experts are not looking at the true cause of evil as long as the spirit of man is not given first place . The test of reality is permanence , and only the Spirit is permanent . Until the Mind and Body come under the rule of the Spirit of Jesus , sin n death will continue in individuals of all stripes races nationalities and sex – Dealing only with symptoms and not the root cause which is spiritual – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil does not bring life , the life tree/vine is Jesus . No amount of law or lack of law will bring about life and peace in society – Only understanding the significance of Jesus living , dying and rising .

  • fubar

    in other words, some people are sheep. something we already knew.