As I understand it most Australian media organizations have an agreement with the various health departments not to report teen suicide, on the principle that copycat suicide is a real risk among teenagers and the benefits that accrue from reporting on any child’s suicide don’t outweigh the risk that it might trigger another. Furthermore, whenever the media report on a suicide – whether by a normal person or a star – they have a self-enforced code of conduct which requires them to put the contact details for a suicide counselling service at the bottom of the report (in both print and online). I’m not sure if this consideration extends to television or not. This is based on the same principle that people reading the report who are themselves at risk of suicide may benefit from the information, or may be at risk of commencing their own suicide plan if they read about someone else’s. I think the study of suicide is quite advanced and these principles are based in well-established understanding of how suicidal people move from ideation to action, and in societies like Australia that have very high suicide rates it’s a very useful kind of intervention. As far as I know Japan, which has an even higher rate than Australia, doesn’t have any such code of conduct for its media.
Recent mass killings in Norway and the USA have attracted their usual round of sensationalist media coverage, and as these events become bigger, more ferocious and more meticulously planned I find myself wondering whether the media have a role to play in preventing their frequency and ferocity. The Aurora killer clearly had copycat elements of both Columbine and Utroya and there’s a disturbing trend towards these mass killers trying to increase their numbers, even using techniques that they won’t personally witness or that will occur after their death, in the case of the Aurora shooter’s apartment. This article from the Australian ABC includes an interesting interview with a forensic psychiatrist who claims a direct link between the style of reportage and subsequent events, and the strong claim that these mass killings are temporally linked – that the grotesque footage from one will be likely to inspire others within a short time. The psychiatrist interviewed there suggests that instead of sensationalist rolling 24 hour coverage of the murder and all its gory details, the media should be presenting a highly localized, very boring and dry style of reporting that restricts its national value and strips it of sensational elements. This, it is implied, will reduce the risk of copycat killings.
The Aurora case is particularly interesting because their is evidence not just that the killer planned for a long period of time, but that he was seeking help before he did it, and that he showed signs of regret and repentance after, which though sadly too late for the victims do suggest that there was something going on in the mind of the killer that could have been reached out to beforehand. Not only did he leave the building when he was still in a position to kill people, but he waited for the police to come, he warned them about his apartment rather than just letting them go there and die, and he showed signs of confusion and illness at the court appearance. Apparently also he wrote details of his plans and sent them to a psychiatrist, who sadly didn’t receive them (though maybe that’s no longer true). Could it be that this person was actually in a position to be helped before the killings? Could it be that the movement from fantasizing about mass murder to enacting follows similar stages and is as (weakly) preventable as suicide? If so, then surely the media have a part to play in working to prevent these killings? Here, then, are three suggestions for changes the media could enact in order to play a more constructive role in the prevention of mass murder.
- A complete ban on reporting mass killings: beyond a simple one line statement, in television and press. For example, when someone goes on a shooting spree, instead of filling the news for three days with every detail, the media simply report it like the weather: “today a mass shooting occurred in [location], involving one perpetrator and more than [say, 5] deaths. Police are investigating and local media are reporting the details in the affected area.” No photos, no footage, no follow-up and no details. Maybe online newspapers from the affected area should agree not to report it (presenting it in print only) so that there is no way the details can be made available at a national level without going to huge lengths.
- A strict code of limited reporting: So that the press agree to, for example, no more than a specified amount of coverage per hour, or only cover the event briefly in their main news reports, and don’t give certain specifics. Especially, the exact number of dead and wounded, weapons and tactics used, and the identity and history of the killer should all be suppressed. This means that anyone contemplating such a mass killing needs to come to terms with the fact that their name will never be made famous.
- Completely wipe the killer from history: in addition to not reporting their name, the government proceeds to wipe their identify from the records, so that no future planner of a mass murder can find any information about the past achievements or life history of the perpetrators of previous crimes. Delete the killer’s records from school yearbooks, local sports records, etc. so that any noteworthy achievements they have ever made are deleted from the record. In this case the “talented scientist” who did the Aurora killings would have their name removed from any publications they have done, perhaps replaced with “convicted mass murder” or something [I don't believe this Aurora killer was actually a scientist but if he were...] When you wipe 12 people from this world, you should not achieve infamy – you should be forgotten by all but your family and those whose love you betrayed with your acts. By doing this the government guarantees that the murderer becomes no one of note, and that anyone else who is falling into this strange worldview will not be able to find any common ground with those who came before them. All they have is a name and a face, and unless they go to the killer’s town and look their details up directly, they will learn nothing about their forebears. With no identity, how can this person be a role model for future killers?
- Provision of counseling advice: when reporting on the shooting, the media could agree to a code of practice for guiding future murderers to counseling. Perhaps a contact number for a specialist phone line, with a phrase like “If you are feeling alienated and lost, or constantly fantasizing about killing other people, please call this line.” Perhaps for the Aurora killer that would have been enough for someone to at least try and help them. I once had a friend commit suicide, and she was plagued for months beforehand with constant thoughts of doing it. The help she sought wasn’t enough for her, but in some cases it is. Perhaps if the same approach were applied to potential mass murderers some of them would break out of their reverie and find a better way to move their lives forward.
I am in favour of option 1, on a trial basis of, say, five years, across the entire USA, Europe and Australasia. I think it would be hard to prove that it made a difference because the killings are rare events and the stochastic properties of sequences of mass killings would be hard to study, but I think it’s worth a try. There’s no strong public interest in knowing the horrible details of a stranger’s death in another town, but there’s a lot of value in potentially being able to reduce the frequency and severity of these tragic events. It doesn’t have to be mandated by law – it simply requires all the media to agree to a voluntary code of conduct. Of course it would require that they give up the financial benefits that flow from the extreme attention that the media get during such events, but I think that’s a small price to pay for the possibility of reducing rates of these hideous crimes. But at the very least it should cost them nearly nothing to put a message about seeking help on the screen. It would be nice to see the media give at least that much back in return for being free to present their lurid and sensationalist crap, but I’m probably asking too much of both our media and political overlords. Unless America can come up with the even more radical idea of restricting access to military-grade weapons, I can’t think of anything else that would work…