Maine Sunday Telegram
Sunday, September 12, 2004
Sinister form of flattery
By RAY ROUTHIER, Portland Press Herald Writer
It sounds elementary, but to convince people something is actually
happening, you've got to give them examples.
That's why Loren Coleman decided to use specific cases to illustrate years
of dry research into the area of copycat violence. The term describes
violent acts that are reported widely, then thought to spur similar acts.
The suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain, for instance, spurred 70 or 80
suicides around the world, Coleman contends. After many showings of the film
"The Deer Hunter," incidents of Russian roulette are reported, since that
violent game figures prominently in the movie.
Coleman, a consultant to Maine's Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative, took
his examples and put them into a new book, "The Copycat Effect: How the
Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines"
(Paraview Pocket Books, $14). The book is due out this week.
Coleman, 57, lives in Portland and has been working in the mental health
field for more than 35 years. He's a former senior researcher at the
University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Policy and has
written or edited more than 20 books, including "Suicide Clusters" in 1987.
Q: Besides the sheer number of violent acts that are similar, what is the
most persuasive evidence you found that media coverage triggers violence?
A: What I did was take the research studies, done from the 1960s through the
1990s, in which people tracked reports in the media and then tracked what
kind of causal effect they had in three days, one week, one month. I decided
to take this very dry research and put it together with actual cases.
Kurt Cobain's suicide, for instance. There were 70 or 80 other (suicides)
modeled after it. People picking the same day, or leaving notes saying they
"did it for Kurt."
There's much more coverage of these things, on cable news, Fox and MSNBC.
With coverage of the school shootings, they (the shooters) might have done
something more quietly, killed themselves. But they've seen so much
coverage, and that becomes the model for school shootings.
We know that in the year after 9/11, with much less coverage of domestic
(instances of) violence, there were no workplace rampages and no school
In Vienna, they had a rash of subway suicides. They did a newspaper blackout
(no reporting on the suicides) and they decreased an enormous amount.
I'm not out for censorship, but the wall-to-wall coverage and graphic
depictions (of violence) can really get to vulnerable people.
Q: Do you think either news media or entertainment media are more
responsible for this copycat effect?
A: I don't compare and don't try to do blame either. But Dan Rather was very
open (in a speech) saying that news is about death, or the fear of death.
There's some great research on (the film) "The Deer Hunter." That after
there's a showing of that film, there are incidents of Russian roulette in
Q: What about the argument that there has always been violence in the news,
on TV or in films?
A: But it's multiplying way beyond a natural situation. It's not so much
about the violence itself, but how there's so much desensitization to it,
and there's such a large population vulnerable to these images.
The Valentine's Day Massacre (in 1929) was a big news story in its time, but
as someone said, that's just a weekend in Los Angeles now.
Q: What sorts of violence are the most copied?
A: The ones the media report on most. There's not a lot of (reporting) on
elder suicides, or quiet terminal illness suicides. Bank robberies are
pretty much ignored now.
There were shootings at schools before Columbine, but they were people who
weren't part of the school community. And there had been urban crime, urban
African-Americans killing each other.
But the media didn't really catch on until you had "white boys" in rural or
suburban areas killing girls and teachers. Why are "white boys" more
exciting for the media? To appeal to a a larger audience?
I'm not at all kind to the media in the book. I basically say they are using
death to sell soap and SUVs.
Q: What, short of not covering violent crimes and not making violent films,
could the media do differently?
A: I give seven recommendations at the end of the book. (Media outlets) have
actually shown graphic depictions of school shootings, or suicides, or
someone on fire. That's unnecessary.
At sporting events, they don't show fights in the stand because they don't
want to encourage that behavior.
Q: What will you next book be about?
A: I'm looking to do a biography of an adventurer. Something not strange,
and not violent. This was an extremely difficult book to write. My whole
object was to try to prevent more violence in the future, but there are an
awful lot of horrible stories in there.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:
MEET THE AUTHOR
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17
WHERE: Books Etc., 38 Exchange St., Portland. 774-0626
WHAT: Coleman, a suicide prevention consultant and author of the critically
acclaimed book "Suicide Clusters," will discuss his new book, "The Copycat
Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's