Magazine article The Futurist

Combating Copycat Violence: Pop Culture's Exploitation of Criminal Acts Breeds More of Them

Magazine article The Futurist

Combating Copycat Violence: Pop Culture's Exploitation of Criminal Acts Breeds More of Them

Article excerpt

Terrorist attacks, as well as random acts of violence by criminals and mentally unstable individuals, produce psychological effects more far-reaching and potentially more destructive to society than the physical damage they cause. Though the acts themselves may be impossible to prevent, there may be ways to limit their wider impacts.

In his book The Copycat Effect, social critic Loren Coleman presents abundant evidence that news reports and fictional depictions of violent acts--particularly suicide and murder--directly influence others to commit such acts themselves.

The problem, as Coleman sees it, is similar to the spread of a contagious disease. Just as infectious germs are passed along through contact with a sick person or an object he or she has touched, witnessing or reading about a violent crime or suicide can pass the idea of such behavior along to people who would never have thought of it on their own.

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Of course, Coleman doesn't only blame sensational reporting and exploitive media for this problem. Associations from history, such as anniversary dates of shattering events like the September 11 terrorist attacks, can prove significantly symbolic occasions for acts of violence. In the same way, places where suicides are known to have occurred before, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, can act as a magnet for would-be suicides.

Adding guards and protective barriers at favored suicide locations and practicing greater watchfulness around important dates can help reduce the danger from copycat acts. But limiting the negative impacts of news and entertainment shows that feature violence, whether realistic or glamorized, has proven far more difficult.

Coleman's preferred solution would be media self-control. As he puts it, "The media has to stop using rampage shootings, celebrity suicides, bridge jumpers, and school shootings the [same] way it uses tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes to get people to watch their programs. Human behavior reporting impacts future human behaviors."

With regard to suicide, a group of experts met in 1989 to address the problem of why clusters of suicides often occur soon after a well-publicized suicide story. These experts recommended to the Centers for Disease Control that print and broadcast media should make it their policy to show no photographs of suicide scenes or victims, provide no technical details about suicide methods, and in no way glorify suicide. In 1995 the CDC issued more specific recommendations for the media, some of which were later adopted by the World Health Organization. WHO also suggested including local suicide-prevention hotline numbers in any coverage of a suicide story and having reporters stress messages of sympathy for the grieving survivors.

Despite these recommendations for voluntary action, suicide reporting is still generally sensationalized, and clusters of copycat suicides continue to occur as a direct consequence, Coleman says. Ironically, this copycat effect is greatly reduced in places where inadvertent censorship (such as with a newspaper strike) or some even more sensational event (such as the O.J. Simpson case) effectively make ordinary crimes and suicide stories seem relatively insignificant.

Direct censorship can be still more effective. Coleman cites a 1987 incident in Vienna, Austria, where authorities banned all reporting of suicides in response to an "epidemic" of people killing themselves in the subways. "In the four-year period following the forced removal of suicide stories from the newspapers," Coleman notes, "the overall suicide rate decreased nearly 20%," with a 75% decline in subway suicides. …

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