June 4, 2007

"The Copycat Effect:" Does Reporting Violence Lead To Violence?



A reader asked me to read his book before saying that copycat suicides is not a real phenomenon.

To be fair, his book is really good.  It is worth the price even as a reference guide/catalog of suicides and homicides that share similar characteristics, which are striking.   While the majority of the information is a google search away, the fact is that he actually did the searches.   It's also a  good read-- it neither bores you nor crams the conclusions into your head.

But, I respectfully disagree.  I think.

The main disagreement I have with the book is that he conflates two phenomena.  His stated thesis of the book is that media reporting of violence and suicides begats copycats.  However, in support of this premise, he uses examples of the media itself (e.g. movies) causing copycats.

A perfect example of this is the Werther Effect, so named for the Sorrows of Young Werther, the 1774 comic book by Goethe in which the protagonist kills himself because he can't get the girl.    Subsequently, there were numerous copycat suicides-- staging it (same clothes, same desk) as Werther in the novel.  Ok, I get it-- that's a copycat.  But that's not an example of media reporting causing copycats.

In contrast, here's an example of a reporting-induced copycat: Coleman relates the Bergenfield Four.  For a few months, there were rumors that a bunch of kids who called themselves "The Burnouts" had made a suicide pact.  In September of 1986 their leader killed himself; in March of 1987 four others carbon monoxided themselves in a parking garage, leaving a note that clearly linked the deaths.  One week after that, a cop found two other kids trying to do the same thing in the same garage.  The day after the original four suicides, but in Illinois, two other teens suicided the same way (in a garage, in fact.)  Coleman writes that by checking newspapers, he counted 22 teen carbon monoxide suicides in two weeks-- 47 in a month.

But then there's the case of Barry Loukaitis, who in 1996 shot two kids and a math teach, and said he got the idea from Stephen King's Rage, Pearl Jam's Jeremy, Natural Born Killers and The Basketball Diaries.  Coleman writes that "the media attention...triggered a series of similar events."  So, in these copycats, was it  Basketball Diaries or the evening news?  It's hard for me to see how the news can be more influential to a suicidal kid than the movie itself-- do kids even watch the news?

In fairness, he does cite numerous examples of media reporting induced copycats (check out the chapter "Planes Into Buildings" for a wild ride) but overall the argument is weakened by using  both together.  I left the book reasonably convinced that media can inspire copycat violence, but not that they inspire violence itself.  In other words, I think those Werther scholars were going to kill themselves somehow, but they decided to shoot themselves (as oppposed to self-immolation) because of the book.

The distinction-- media or media reporting--  is important because the solutions are different.  Here's an example: the book opens with the story about how one month after Marilyn Monroe's suicide, 197 (mostly blonde women) "appear to have used the model," to suicide-- an increase in the suicide rate of 12%.  Furthermore, the suicide rate never went down after that.  "This is the copycat effect working with a vengeance."  Maybe.  Or maybe the graphic description of the suicide wasn't to blame, but rather that a huge icon had done it at all.  Are they copying her, or is society ripe for self-destruction?  Either way, should we not report that Monroe killed herself at all?  How much do you control information to protect the people?  If the government is doing the controlling, then I can't imagine the answer should be anything other than "not at all, get the hell out of my face."

I've always said that the "mainstream media" is neither liberal nor conservative-- they are sensationalist.  Of course I think they overreport, and overdramatize unusual violence.  But I see that as more of a symptom of our culture than the cause of anything.  You could close down all news portals, it won't change the amount of violence.  Sure, maybe you wouldn't have thought of playing Russian Roulette.  But you were going to come up with something. 

Coleman wrote a thorough book, using the type of diligent research the CIA is supposed to be good at: compiling open source information and forming links.  I only partly disagree with his conclusion, and I am still open to further arguments.  But I am against the solution.

It's worth remembering that, in response to the copycat suicides, Sorrows of Young Werther was banned in Germany.  I know I am one of only 8 people who has actually read it, but do we really want it banned?    Maybe "dangerous" books need to be delayed by a generation to be published?  And you see my problem.

Absent direct power or wealth, the only thing that keeps us free is information.  I believe it is worth the risk of copycat suicides, especially since influencing the choice of the method of suicide isn't the same as influencing the choice of commiting suicide.