The assault this week in Pennsylvania’s Amish country was the sixth deadly school shooting in as many weeks. Media commentators are pointing to the possibility of a copycat effect, but few are examining the media’s own complicity therein. School violence researcher Loren Coleman tells Bob that a little more restraint on the part of the media wouldn’t hurt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Monday morning, as the cable news channels were still digesting stories from the weekend past, news broke of a school shooting in Pennsylvania's Amish country. Details were sketchy, and so the anchors reverted to what they could hardly avoid, namely, that there seemed to be something of a trend afoot.
REPORTER: Another tragic shooting at a school in the United States. Last week, of course, we talked about what happened in Colorado and Wisconsin. Today, it is Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. -
REPORTER: - unbelievable to see this. Once again, when last week- [OVERLAPPING VOICES
REPORTER: In the last week -
REPORTER, CONT'D: - we were dealing with a deadly shooting in Colorado, a deadly shooting in Wisconsin -
REPORTER: - in May.
REPORTER: And now two -
REPORTER: - very well, it's early, so we need to see, have a copycat shooting.
BOB GARFIELD: Indeed, only three days before Charles Roberts IV walked into that schoolhouse, a high school student in Wisconsin had fatally shot the school principal. And two days before that, a man in his fifties had walked into a school in Bailey, Colorado, sexually assaulted a group of girls while holding them hostage, and murdered one of them before killing himself. On September 13th, a man, allegedly obsessed with Columbine, had opened fire in a Montreal college, killing a student and then himself. And, in late August another Columbine-like shooting had taken place in Hillsboro, North Carolina, just a few days after a teacher was shot to death in her Vermont school. But while the media pointed to the possibility of a copycat effect, they didn't spend much time examining their own complicity in it. And that troubles Loren Coleman, a suicide prevention consultant and school violence researcher up in Maine. He says school shootings have occurred in clusters for a decade, and wall-to-wall coverage hasn't helped.
LOREN COLEMAN: It really began in 1996, in which kids from the schools that they then would go back into and do the shootings, often were wearing these long black coats, were coming in with guns, modeling it, very specifically, after things they were seeing in fiction or on the news. Columbine, unfortunately, got so much publicity that it now is the seminal model, the black cloud, over many of these shootings. The one that happened, for instance, in Hillsboro, North Carolina on August 29th, that individual who shot up the school, they asked why, and he said, "Columbine. Remember Columbine." And they discovered that he had killed his father at home before he'd come to school.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you said that Columbine, unfortunately, got a lot of media attention. What do you mean by that?
LOREN COLEMAN: I think that one of the reasons that I wrote my book, The Copycat Effect, was really to try to begin the debate within the media about how much is too much. The graphic details that we see on the cable wall-to-wall coverage and in some other media really sets up a situation where these vulnerable people have a model in front of them to then plan their outrages in a similar fashion. Since August 24th, these individuals have all been males, they've all been Caucasian, they all have been outsiders, either expelled students or older males, and they all have victimized females - young girls, usually – or authority figures, in the case of principals or teachers or guards.
BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, we see individuals copying at least aspects from previous episodes. But apart from a hunch, or, you know, a series of anecdotal information that seems to coincide, is there any real science to demonstrate that there is, in fact, a copycat effect?
LOREN COLEMAN: Yes, indeed, and it's called the Werther Effect. There's 30 years of research, and mostly from Dr. David Phillips in California, a sociologist, and myself, and other individuals who studied newspaper reports of suicides. For instance, the research done on the suicide of Marilyn Monroe showed that there was 197 copycat suicides over and above the national average during the month after her suicide. And you can see this with Freddie Prinze, you can see it with Kurt Cobain, and so the celebrity suicides get a lot of attention. But there's also been serious research done on suicides that appear in the newspapers and how they increase with more coverage, front-page coverage versus back-of-the-paper coverage. It's well known in the suicidology field, it's well known in the sociology field. I just feel it's time for it to be brought forward and discussed, because the media has ignored it for so long.
BOB GARFIELD: I can see how moderating coverage of suicides may have an effect on suicide clusters and may be the right way for the media to behave. But when you're talking about someone going into a community, taking many victims, terrorizing an entire community, you can't possibly be suggesting that that doesn't in itself constitute news that must be reported.
LOREN COLEMAN: Do we need to know what Charles Roberts had in his little bag? Do we need to know that he had K-Y Jelly? Do we need to know that he had restraints and bolts on a board in which he was going to terrorize these young girls? It's one thing to talk about the bare facts – there was a school shooting, so-and-so was killed. To really talk more about the victims than we actually talk about the shooter would be a first good step. There were many things that happened with regard to the Amish situation that concerns me about how much information was given the week before in Colorado. If you look at how Bailey was handled – helicopters overhead, specific details about the sexual abuse, even down to the specific tactical details about how law enforcement went into school, repeating over and over again, doesn't this look like Columbine? – I think that there's a thin line here between reporting and actually setting up a model of behavior for the next individual.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say that the copycat effect is behind this extraordinary and horrifying cluster of killings. And let's just assume, for a moment, that the media have the responsibility in general to report these disruptions in the society. What should we do, or specifically not do, the next time around?
LOREN COLEMAN: Well, I think that first of all there needs to be a debate. I don't think there should be any governmental regulations. I think that the media really need to start talking amongst themselves. There's a situation that – I'm a big baseball fan - and there's a situation that happens during live baseball games. If someone runs out on a baseball field, the camera turns away and the commentators say, well, we don't want to show that, because we'll encourage it. I think it's the same thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Loren Coleman, thank you very much.
LOREN COLEMAN: It's great being here.
BOB GARFIELD: Loren Coleman is the author of The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]