April 19, 2007


Obviously the Virginia Tech massacre is getting round-the-clock coverage. And some people seem to be fretting that giving the killer so much media publicity might end up encouraging copycat shooters. That seems plausible. But a flat earth seems plausible, too. So I'm curious: Is there any hard evidence that blanket coverage of massacres like this actually do inspire copycats? The first thing I found on Google was this passage from an old New York Times story, circa October 2006:
Psychologists and scholars of the news media said that although copycat events were always possible, the likelihood of one school attack leading to another was probably a bit less than it was a few years ago.

Some experts said they were not sure that the copycat phenomenon was real.
So "some experts" are skeptical. But "some experts" are also unnamed. That's not terribly helpful. Moving on, there's Loren Coleman, who wrote a whole book on the subject: The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. Naturally, he has a blog, which touts some relevant findings:
-- copycats follow a regular temporal pattern that repeats - these could be after a primary media event in a day, a week, two weeks, a month, a year, ten years—vulnerable humans have internal media clocks...

-- copycats imitate the previous violent attacks, oftentimes down to specific details as that mirror the previous specifics of the shooter, the victims, and the methods.

-- "celebrity" events have a far-reaching impact and modeling effect—so, of course, Columbine serves as a dark cloud over many school shootings.
Coleman argues that a school shooting in Essex, Vermont on August 24, 2006, really did inspire a wave of copycats—he lists them all and notices certain patterns. Okay, but if we want to be strict here, this just means that all of these shootings, occurring in a short time span, had some things in common. It doesn't necessarily mean that the first shooting caused the subsequent shootings (or that Student X would have never gunned down his classmates had it not been for, say, Columbine). Or that overblown media coverage was the culprit. Still, Coleman might well be onto something.

Alternatively, we could look at a parallel issue—copycat suicides, which have been studied pretty intensively. The World Health Organization cites a study finding that the suicide rate spikes in the ten days after news reports on suicides. This effect also depends largely on the type of coverage. The WHO recommends that media outlets keep their reports brief, point out any mental health problems the victim may have had, avoid publishing pictures or descriptions of the methods used, and not to depict suicide "as a method of coping with personal problems." In any case, I'd say the evidence is suggestive, but not quite conclusive, unless there are some major studies I'm missing.
-- Brad Plumer 8:44 PM || ||