Media Can Be Antibiotic for Violence

By Klite, Paul | The Quill, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Media Can Be Antibiotic for Violence


Klite, Paul, The Quill


The news media can prevent the spread of violence without ignoring journalistic responsibilities.

Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down. That's not my department, says Werner von Braun. - Tom Lehrer

The Columbine High School massacre generates saturation coverage on national and local television and thousands of copycat acts immediately explode across the land. In

Pennsylvania alone, police report 52 bomb scares and other threats. A Gallup poll finds 37 percent of teens nationwide know of similar threats at their own school.

Breaking news in Bangkok, Thailand. Blanket television broadcasts show spectacular attempts to prevent a suicidal woman from leaping off a high-rise building. The intervention fails and she jumps to her death. The next day, another person jumps off a high-rise.

Director Stanley Kubrick withdraws his movie, "A Clockwork Orange," in Britain after youths imitate the movie's rape scene.

Three Canadian teens carry out a death pact after rock star Kurt Cobain's suicide; their death note bemoans not having access to the same gun he used.

Copycat violence is vivid evidence of the mass media's power to spread ideas and actions and represents a perplexing challenge to journalistic ethics.

Mimicked crimes have occurred following intense media coverage of hijackings, mass murder, terrorism, workplace violence, product tampering, hate crimes and, especially, suicide. A sketchy empiric profile of potentially "contagious" news includes diabolical or bizarre criminal acts that attract excessive media attention and generate notoriety for perpetrators as well as premeditated violent events with random consequences and multiple victims. Motives might include revenge or some political statement. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to accurately predict, measure and anticipate all the triggers for criminal contagion.

Television doesn't "cause" copycat crimes, but it does plant the ideas in vulnerable and troubled minds. Broadcasting, after all, means to spread seeds. As an analogy, coughing doesn't cause tuberculosis; the germ does. The cough spreads it. Sex doesn't cause AIDS; the virus does. Sex spreads it.

Of course, not all copycat media effects are malevolent. Mass audiences across the planet readily emulate styles, fads, speech and behaviors from television. This power is the reason businesses spend billions annually to advertise on television. Television spreads good ideas too, like seat belt use and smoking cessation.

Are negative media effects like contagious violence preventable? What elements of TV's coverage of dramatic events catalyze violent behavior and heighten the copycat potential of news telling?

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters has published guidelines for handling potentially troubling violence. First of all, they will not air programming that contains gratuitous violence or which sanctions, promotes or glamorizes violence. Programs must deal carefully with themes that might threaten children's safety, security or invite imitation. In general, caution must be exercised in selecting and repeating violent video in the news. While the news should not be sanitized, the CAB warns that care should be taken not to incite additional violence.

The British Broadcasting Corp: s Producer Guidelines state, "Reported suicides may encourage others. We should not try to add to this risk:' Recommendations include not broadcasting the details of the suicide method, being discreet and sensitive about broadcast images and demonstrating extreme care in reporting unusual suicide methods.

In the United States, mayhem has become the bread and butter of broadcast journalism, and media operatives can become blase and desensitized to the potential dangerous side-effects of violent images. While framing media mayhem as a public health issue goes against the grain of journalists' concepts of First Amendment press freedoms, even Constitutional rights have limits when they are harmful or dangerous. …

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