Jul 1 1999

Columbine Copycats: Is News to Blame?

This Modern World: High School Horrorfest (TM)As a wave of copycat incidents and threats spread across the nation’s school, accusations against Marilyn Manson and Hollywood thrived, along with the standard culture-war carping from the Amen Corner. (In one particularly bizarre moment on CNN‘s Larry King Live, actor Yaphet Kotto–whose sole qualification to sound off on Littleton appears to be his role as a police lieutenant on Homicide–blamed the whole thing on the fact that “God is not in the classroom anymore,” and repeated the misinformation, sans reality check from King, that students aren’t allowed to pray.) While coverage of copycat attempts relied on quotes from educators, psychologists, social workers, politicians and law enforcement officials, virtually unheard from were people like Park Dietz and David Phillips, whose studies have found that news reports–not movies or video games–are the prime media mover in begetting copycats.

“There’s sort of an agreed-to conspiracy on all sides in cases like this: The media need experts, and experts are willing to pretend to be experts, and everyone feels better after the terrifying thing has been explained,” sighs the University of California/San Diego’s Phillips, who says he’s still wondering if anyone will call him. In one pioneering study, Phillips found that not only did single-driver car crashes increase after publicized suicides, and multiple-fatality crashes increase after mass murder/suicides, but the numbers seemed to have a relationship to the style and saturation of media coverage. In another investigation, UCLA’s Dietz (arguably the nation’s top criminal forensic psychiatrist) found that suicide, product tampering and mass murder lent themselves to imitation, and that the degree of imitation was inspired by sustained and sensationalized media coverage.

“I actually wrote a long series of suggested guidelines for the World Health Organization that would make stories like this less likely to be imitated without making it so the stories disappeared from the paper…” says Phillips. “You have to think of these stories as a sort of advertisement to mass murder. the more alternatives you give in coverage to the act, the less likely you are to see the act imitated.”

–Jason Vest, Village Voice (5/5/99)