How to Discourage Aurora Copy Cats?


Roger Ebert, in his much-discussed New York Times op-ed about the Aurora killings, writes, "Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action."

Holmes (2).jpg Probably. And probably somewhere there will be angry, aggrieved loners who aren't yet uncoiling but may now consider that possibility. They'll see the picture of James Holmes on a front page or a home page and imagine how nice it would be to see their picture there. That aspiration may seem crazy to you and me, but, remember, we're talking about crazy people.

More specifically, we seem to be talking, in most of these cases, about people whose craziness involves a deeply felt lack of social affirmation. (Holmes was said to have few if any friends and little if any romantic history.) And I guess if you're crazy in that particular way, even the twisted affirmation Holmes has gotten seems appealing. You get to punish society doubly for ignoring you--kill some people and then force the rest of them to finally take a look at you.

If this admittedly speculative piece of conventional wisdom is right, then the pictures of Holmes appearing on newspapers and TV and websites (including this one) will actually increase the chances of another Aurora. Is there anything we can do about that?

Obviously, in America you don't legislate how crimes are covered by the media. There won't ever be, and shouldn't be, a law banning the publication of pictures of mass killers. But is it too much to hope that a norm along those lines could develop? That major media players--the Times, the Washington Post, the major broadcast and cable news networks, for starters--could agree to quit featuring images of accused mass killers? And that maybe this norm would "trickle down" through much of the media landscape?

I realize that a defining trait of the modern media environment is supposed to be the breakdown of informal codes of conduct. (That's one reason the private lives of politicians are no longer out of bounds.) And, obviously, there are high-traffic websites that would never go along with this code. But norms can have strength even amid decentralized power. There are still things that, if done by mainstream media, draw enough condemnation to shame the perpetrators and enduringly damage their reputations. (Ask ABC's Brian Ross.)

Norms need compelling rationales to propel them toward widespread acceptance. This norm would seem to have no lack of logic behind it. Isn't it a pretty safe bet that Holmes is gratified by the thought of his picture being everywhere? And isn't gratifying him disrespectful to the families of the dead and wounded? And, however speculative the conventional wisdom about his picture inspiring copy cats, isn't it pretty plausible? In which case this norm would actually be saving future American lives? So you could even argue that it's patriotic not to run pictures of people like him?

It may well be that media outlets that embraced this norm would for days at a time suffer a loss of audience share--especially in the beginning, before the norm caught on. But the establishment and sustenance of norms almost by definition carries a cost. The idea is that the cost born by some in the name of the norm is outweighed by larger societal benefit. In societies that are functioning well, this kind of thing happens when it's needed.

I realize, of course, that Aurora and all the crimes like it raise doubts about how well our society is functioning. But there are ways to address those doubts, and maybe this is one of them.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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