The Copycat Effect

I bet the author, Loren Coleman, would say that the most responsible thing the news could do is advertise his book. I don’t plan on commenting on every single book that I read, but we will call this two in a row for now. I recently read through Loren Coleman’s The Copycat Effect. The book left me unfulfilled. I picked it up some time ago thinking that it would be a discussion of the information age and the proliferation of individuals copying what they see in the media. Instead the book was largely a collection of historic suicides, mass murders, and murder-suicides and similar ones that occurred shortly thereafter (or annually, in some cases). What the book lacked was actual discussion of a trigger or specific psychological precedents in individuals who display this copycat effect. The author instead points a finger, and the blame, at the media itself for showing and discussing these horrors.

The author’s conclusion contains a list of 7 suggestions to the media in order to reduce the copycat effect. I will reproduce the suggestions below, in what may be the closest I come to a severe copyright violation, and provide my own (non-expert/unprofessional) commentary.

1.) The media must be more aware of the power of their words. Using language like "successful" sniper attacks, suicides, and bridge jumpers, and "failed" murder-suicides, for example, clearly suggest to viewers and readers that someone should keep trying again until they "succeed". We may wish to "succeed" in relationships, sports, and jobs, but we do not want rampage or serial killers, architects of murder-suicide, and suicide bombers to make further attempts after "failing". Words are important. Even the use of suicide or rampage in headlines, news alerts, and breaking bulletins should be reconsidered.

In other words, this means the media should censor itself. Speaking of failures and successes in suicides and such is actually proper terminology. We discussed that at length in my grad level classes. The word the author uses throughout the book is “completed” in order to describe a successful attempt. What that suggests is that attempts that don’t get finished are therefore incomplete, and we live in a culture that speaks poorly of people who leave things unfinished. I’m not sure if that’s good wording. Of course, one has to ask what else there is to say? And what words other than rampage or serial killers? The new words would mean the same thing, and what you would create then is a rotating list of words to describe the same thing. The ultimate solution, sadly, is to leave the news unreported.

2.) The media must drop their clichéd stories about the "nice boy next door" or the "lone nut". The copycat violent individual is neither mysterious nor healthy, or usually an overachiever. They are often a fatal combination of despondency, depression, and mental illness. School shooters are suicidal youth that slipped through the cracks, but it is a complex issue, nevertheless. People are not simple. The formulaic stories are too often too simplistic.

I waited through the entire book for this, characteristics of copycat individuals. Instead of suggesting an intervention, though, the author says that the media should take responsibility. What about the schools? What about the parents? It’s ironic that it’s stated that people are not simple and the stories shouldn’t be presented as simple but the solution itself oversimplifies.

3.) The media must cease its graphic and sensationalized wall-to-wall commentary and coverage of violent acts and the details of the actual methods and places where they occur. Photographs of murder victims, tapes of people jumping off bridges, and live shots of things like car chases ending in deadly crashes, for example, merely glamorize those deaths, and create models for others–down to the method, the place, the timing, and the type of individual involved. Even fictional entertainment, such as the screening of The Deer Hunter, provides vivid copycatting stimuli for vulnerable, unstable, angry, and depressed individuals.

There’s a case to be made for these vulnerable individuals’ latching onto anything in this situation. If not the sensationalized and graphic, then the implied yet disturbing. This is another suggestion for censorship. I can’t get behind that. It’s another situation in which I suggest interventions over censorship.

4.) The media should show more details about the grief of the survivors and victims (without glorifying the death), highlight the alternatives to the violent acts, and mention the relevant background traits that may have brought this event to this deathly end. They should also avoid setting up the incident as a logical or reasonable way to solve a problem.

I can’t disagree with this. Detailing the grief of survivors and victims is a great way to bring light to the situation without dwelling on the methodology, but highlighting alternatives doesn’t make enough sense to me. The world is full of alternatives. The problem may be that the individual sees the horrid act as the last resort, ignoring all other suggestions. I can’t stress this enough, but maybe we should be publicizing interventions along with those relevant background traits.

5.) The media must avoid ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes in portraying the victims or the perpetrators. Why set up situations that like-minded individuals (e.g., neo-Nazis) can use as a road map for future rampages against similar victims?

Chances are that like-minded individuals such as neo-Nazis already have in mind who they want to hurt. Ethnic, racial, religious and cultural information might be helpful information, especially in terms of studying what has happened and why. This then turns into another case of censoring the news. That’s not helpful.

6.) The media should never publish a report on suicide or murder-suicide without adding the protective factors, such as the contact information for hotlines, help lines, soft lines, and other available community resources, including e-mail addresses, websites, and phone numbers. To run a story on suicide or a gangland murder without thinking about the damage the story can do is simply not responsible. It’s like giving a child a loaded gun. The media should try to balance such stories with some concern and consideration for those who may use it to imitate the act described.

I agree that protective factors should be provided, but it’s not the responsibility of the news to provide it. I say it would be the goodwill of the news to provide it. As for comparing the information provided by the news to giving a child a loaded gun, that’s disgustingly extreme. You know what’s more like giving a child a loaded gun? Giving a child a loaded gun! Hasn’t anyone ever read a story about a child committing an act of violence or self-harm and then asked, “Hey, how did that kid get the weapon(s) in the first place?”

7.) And finally, the media should reflect more on their role in creating our increasingly perceived violent society. Honest reporting on the positive nature of being alive in the twenty-first century may actually decrease the negative outcomes of the copycat effect, and create a wave of self-awareness that this life is rather good after all. Most of our lives are mundane, safe, and uneventful. This is something that an alien watching television news from outer space, as they say, would never know. The media should "get real" and try to use their influence and the copycat effect to spread a little peace rather than mayhem.

As it stands, the book merely makes the case for the copycat effect, but it’s not a scientifically proven theory. Given that information, it hasn’t been tested. How do we know that the copycat effect can lead to positive behavior? Sounds like an idea for a follow-up book, but I have a feeling that won’t be written. (Which leads one to wonder if the Mr. Coleman is hypocritically cashing in on the sensationalization of death and murder himself.) An idea on a whim like that makes for a poor suggestion, although I do like the idea of reporting on more positive news stories.

This is an ad for a documentary I have yet to see, but I have to draw attention to something that disturbs me. I bet you that some group out there would suggest that the shirt is to blame and are working on getting it banned or pulled from production.

Obviously, I don’t like blaming the media for people’s ills. It will likely contribute in various ways, no doubt, but it’s hardly the source or the place to implement the solution. And let me be clear, censorship is not the solution. Education and awareness make for better solutions, but they’re often ignored because they’re far from simple.

There was a time when educational system included more mindful subjects like philosophy, or we could call it critical thinking. If more individuals were brought up with a better understanding of how to interpret the media, there would be fewer problems with it. If our educational system also included classes on being more inclusive and understanding of people, even better. If we could ultimately find a way to help foster more benevolent feelings and provide individuals with solid social support structures, we’d be many steps closer to utopia. I realize fully that the last one is a stretch and a nigh impossibility, but one can dream. After all, we provide individuals of autism with lessons about the importance of empathy and reinforce it for years. Why not for individuals on the more normative spectrum?

Loren Coleman’s book is ultimately successful in arguing for the prevalence of the copycat effect in American (and Japanese) society, but the fault of the book is that the individuals reading it already agree. The book’s lack of discussion on triggers and precedents makes the whole thing come across weak, and at times it literally reads like a list of unfortunate incidents. The inclusion of a list of suggestions by a man whose field of study doesn’t even involve the effects of the media (he’s got a Master’s in Social Work but he’s primarily, I kid you not, a cryptozoologist) is completely understood and good natured but also of little merit. However, just as I was easily able to pick at his suggestions, I expect my responses will be just as easily dissected and dismissed. The book, much like this entry, may be best regarded as the ice breaker for a larger discussion about the role the media plays in our lives and the responsibilities the individuals on both sides of the transmissions.


About Gospel X

I am a major mediaphile as well as a social researcher. My ultimate belief is that the media can be used to teach children prosocial behaviors and teach adults how to access paradigms. And I think that Mega Man is an amazing example of proteanism. Add me on Google :

Posted on December 3, 2009, in censorship, culture, journalism, literature, psychology, real life, review. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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