Aurora: Giving Mass Murderers the Rewards They Seek?

While we can’t totally prevent the type of tragedy that has taken place in Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma City, we can certainly reduce the probability of such events reoccurring.

While these mass murderers may have multiple delusions, almost all seek publicity, copy what they have seen elsewhere, or, often, both. Their final actions, as well as how much of their earlier life revolves around elaborate preparations, clearly give them some bizarre sense of identity. Then, when they carry out their plans, they are rewarded instantaneously with the fame they could not otherwise receive. Reduce the attention given to them, and you reduce the likelihood future people with this type of mental illness will seek violent outlets for their distorted worldviews.

To cut back on giving them the rewards they seek requires a bit of honesty. The huge publicity following Aurora is big business, very big business. Billions of dollars of print and media output follow, as do billions of dollars of advertising that supports those news organizations. In a way, all the news about Aurora is a form of entertainment—not in the sense of amusement, but in the original Latin meaning of the word: intertenere, or “to hold inside” or occupy our thoughts and time. We pay the media for information on the subject, they give it front-page coverage, the murderer gets the reward he seeks, and the next mass murderer gets new ideas and is enticed by the fame he can achieve.

A related area is the emulation of suicides, known as the Werther effect. Waves of suicide followed the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist commits suicide after failing to attract the girl he wants. Similar trends were found after media coverage of the first jumpers off the Brooklyn Bridge. We have all become quite familiar with the proliferation of suicide bombers in recent decades, their goal achieved as much if not more through the publicity they attain. Social scientists study these contagion effects, as well as their tendency to cluster in time and space as learning about them expands. One such cluster of suicides followed that of Marilyn Monroe.

There’s no debate as to whether these imitative behaviors occur. Researchers such as Dr. David Philips, who coined the term Werther effect, have examined the ways and patterns by which people engage in violent behavior by following the examples of others.

So here’s the box we’re in. If we’re the newspaper reporter or TV broadcaster or talk-show pundit constantly giving attention to the mass murderer and the results of his actions, we’re part of the problem. We consumers aren’t off the hook either; we buy the newspapers and increase the ratings of the TV shows and web sites covering these events.

When The Sorrows of Young Werther was linked to a spate of suicides, Goethe’s book was banned in some jurisdictions. No one suggests this type of action today in a country with a strong free-press tradition such as the United States. Even a voluntary ban would be impossible given the widespread outlets through which the media operates. One can also legitimately argue that the information is useful, not just entertainment, to some people.

Here, then, is a simpler and more modest suggestion. Let’s agree not to give mass murderers front-page or large-headline coverage. Let’s decide not to give them at least the most visible rewards they so desperately seek. Remove the splash. The news can be covered just as thoroughly, let’s just downplay its display. Some brave media leaders might even agree to send their above-average company profits or wages for reporting on the murderous event to the affected communities. Some businesses might reduce advertising on the most exploitive media outlets.

Of course, I understand the response from the back of the newsroom. How can we, it will be argued, not give more banner and headline attention to these events than our competitors? We would simply lose more money. If we consider ourselves among the better news outlets, then that profit loss would put us even further behind the eight-ball in being able to do the things we do well. On top of that, it’s all over the web anyway. Political campaign managers make a similar argument: whatever the short-term social cost of misleading campaign information, the victory of their candidate is for the long-term good of the country.

In the end, I’m not sure my simple objective of granting mass murderers less of the fame they seek is achievable without some consumer demand for it, perhaps led by organized consumer federations, churches, or other groups. Until then, I can just do my own bit and try to be honest with myself about my part (including writing this column) in these continually unfolding tragedies.

2 Comments on “Aurora: Giving Mass Murderers the Rewards They Seek?”

  1. […] efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that […]

  2. […] efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that […]

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