Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Murder-Suicide Script

By eery coincidence, this week I read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (which I neglected to read when he first wrote it). The book describes the phenomenon of social epidemics, including suicide and murder-suicide epidemics. Gladwell cites compelling evidence that high-profile media coverage of suicides leads to a spike in the suicide rate and that high-profile media coverage of murder-suicides causes murder-suicides to spike. (Most creepily, even automobile fatalities spike following this pattern, suggesting that some people commit suicide and murder-suicide by auto.) In light of this evidence, it's a near-certainty that people will be killed by acts in imitation of the Virginia Tech shooter---and indeed, it appears that there has already been a wave of scares. (It's not always easy to tell which "successful" murder-suicides are attributable to copycatting, which is why the large-n study looks at the change in rate.)

As Gladwell explains, prominent murder-suicides create a "script" that others can then follow so as to get out their "message." Accordingly, any substantial news coverage of a murder-suicide is potentially lethal, but it seems especially problematic to show the killer's videorecorded statement because it makes the script that much easier to follow.

It may be tempting to think that news organizations can show the video on the theory that with its widespread availability on YouTube and elsewhere, the damage has already been done. But this is almost certainly wrong. Some, probably most, people watching the news will not have seen the video before, and each additional viewer raises the likelihood of further violence. That's not an argument for censorship. It may not even warrant self-censorship: A news organization could make a judgment that the newsworthiness of the story outweighs the marginal unwitting encouragement to murder-suicide that coverage provides (although I wouldn't reach that judgment). But at the very least, one would hope that responsible news organizations consider the very real cost. The fact that the networks have now said they will limit re-airing the video in response to claims of offense by victims' family members suggests that they don't appreciate the more substantial harm to which they have already likely contributed.


egarber said...

I understand the point, for sure.

As to the question of whether this should dampen coverage, I like to err on the side of information and education. I think in the main, society is better off with widespread information and knowledge about anything that's newsworthy (excepting specifics about impending U.S. military maneuvers, etc.).

It seems to me that this slope can get slippery very fast -- it might even empower those who say terrorism shouldn't be reported in big terms because it gives the enemy a platform and encourages further attacks. Not quite the same, I'll admit, since terror groups typically have political aims. But it does relate on some level, I think.

(Posting from the blackberry today on a camping trip).

Garth said...

the point is similar to the claim/phenomenon that seeing clever forms of mayhem in a movie may promote copy cat actions.

i seem to recall a movie in which a character sets a subway token collector on fire by squirting flamable fluid through the change slot and throwing in a lighter.

i also seem to recall that it prompted a real life copycat lending more support to Gladwell's script theory.

i feel there has been an eerie prurient interest running through the constant media coverage and focus on the grieving which only serves to enhance the allure of the script in my mind.

not once have i heard the msm draw the comparison between this horrible tragedy and the similar tragedies occurring in Iraq every day.

otoh, i have heard msm quoting press releases from the NRA proclaiming that had the students been armed, they could have successfully defended themselves. grandstanding in the midst of grief.

ultimately, while i am all in favor of the press exercising a sense of decorum in handling tragedy, i am leery of any formalized restrictions on how the press reports.

Ricky said...

It's a funny place to draw a line. Mass murder/suicides wouldn't even show up on a graph of (even violent) death in this country. How could it possibly be a wise use of attention and effort to try and do something about them? It's impossible not to get emotionally involved in such a fraught subject, but this cost you speak of is negligible.

I would be interested in a fuller statement of your beliefs about what our mass media actually is and does, and your judgments about what the media can, and should, do.

It's a great topic.

Scott said...

I don't think we can conclude much from the networks' stated explanation for not re-airing the video. Even if they agreed with you that showing the video makes future violence more likely, they might not want to say so; it would effectively admit that the previous airings caused lasting harm. And because the networks have a perfectly good explanation for not showing the video that doesn't admit anything other than inadequate sensitivity, they needn't say anything else.

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