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Copycat Effect

  The Copycat Effect
How The Media and Popular Culture Trigger The Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines

by Loren Coleman

Paraview Pocket Books - Simon and Schuster, 2004, 308 pages

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[The following concluding excerpt from The Copycat Effect is based on over thirty years of research, case studies, and media guidelines detailed in that book's three hundred pages.  Please refer to that work for supportive data, examples, related material, and an extensive twenty-page bibliography.]

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Suicides, murder-suicides, and murders ­ the events that are at the core of the most negative projections of the copycat effect -- will remain newsworthy in the eyes of the media in the foreseeable future and will continue to be reported. So what, short of self-censorship, should the media do to halt the contagion of the copycat effect? While the recommendations of prevention experts during the last two decades have applied specifically to suicides, I have generalized them so that they also apply to all forms of violence that fall under the media-driven propagation of the copycat effect.

Here, then, are my seven recommendations:

(1) The media must be more aware of the power of their words. Using language like "successful" sniper attacks, suicides, and bridge jumpers, and "failed" murder-suicides, for example, clearly suggest to viewers and readers that someone should keep trying again until they "succeed." We may wish to "succeed" in relationships, sports, and jobs, but we do not want rampage or serial killers, architects of murder-suicide, and suicide bombers to make further attempts after "failing." Words are important. Even the use of "suicide" or "rampage" in headlines, news alerts, and breaking bulletins should be reconsidered.

(2) The media must drop their clichéd stories about the "nice boy next door" or the "lone nut." The copycat violent individual is neither mysterious nor healthy, or usually an overachiever. They are often a fatal combination of despondency, depression, and mental illness. School shooters are suicidal youth that slipped through the cracks, but it is a complex issue, nevertheless. People are not simple. The formulaic stories are too often too simplistic.

(3) The media must cease its graphic and sensationalized wall-to-wall commentary and coverage of violent acts and the details of the actual methods and places where they occur. Photographs of murder victims, tapes of people jumping off bridges, and live shots of things like car chases ending in deadly crashes, for example, merely glamorize these deaths, and create models for others ­ down to the method, the place, the timing, and the type of individual involved. Even fictional entertainment, such as the screening of The Deer Hunter, provides vivid copycatting stimuli for vulnerable, unstable, angry, and depressed individuals.

(4) The media should show more details about the grief of the survivors and victims (without glorifying the death), highlight the alternatives to the violent acts, and mention the relevant background traits that may have brought this event to this deathly end. They should also avoid setting up the incident as a logical or reasonable way to solve a problem.

(5) The media must avoid ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes in portraying the victims or the perpetrators. Why set up situations that like-minded individuals (e.g. neo-Nazis) can use as a roadmap for a future rampages against similar victims?

(6) The media should never publish a report on suicide or murder-suicide without adding the protective factors, such as the contact information for hot lines, help lines, soft lines, and other available community resources, including email addresses, websites, and phone numbers. To run a story on suicide or a gangland murder without thinking about the damage the story can do is simply not responsible. It¹s like giving a child a loaded gun. The media should try to balance such stories with some concern and consideration for those who may use it to imitate the act described.

(7) And finally, the media should reflect more on their role in creating our increasingly violent society. Honest reporting on the positive nature of being alive in the twenty-first century might actually decrease the negative outcomes of the copycat effect, and create a wave of self-awareness that this life is rather good after all. Most of our lives are mundane, safe, and uneventful. This is something that an alien watching television news from outer space, as they say, would never know. The media should "get real," and try to use their influence and the copycat effect to spread a little peace, rather than mayhem.
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The time has come for someone to say, Stop it. Stop sensationalizing the violence. Stop triggering violent behaviors now.
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© Loren Coleman 2004.  

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