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America’s Foremost Criminal Profiler Warns Media Coverage Causes School Shootings
Posted By Daniel Greenfield On December 20, 2012 @ 8:03 pm In The Point | 13 Comments
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.
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.
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