Punishing James Holmes with Obscurity

How to disrupt what my Atlantic colleague John Gould calls "the infamy game"--the dynamic by which ubiquitous images of James Holmes encourage others who are mentally disturbed to follow in his footsteps?

Gould is skeptical of the practicality of my proposal to establish a media norm against featuring images of accused mass killers. I had suggested that several big media players--maybe the New York Times, the Washington Post, and some major TV networks--might agree to not feature such images, and that maybe this norm would "trickle down" to other establishment media (although of course it would never permeate the entire media landscape).

I certainly agree with Gould that my proposal faces obstacles, notably the fact that the media outlets that took this step first could suffer a loss of audience share in the wake of a mass killing. But I'd make two points:

First, the willingness of people and institutions to cooperate in sustaining norms depends on how dire the threat they're combatting seems. When nations are literally at war, their mainstream media often radically rewrite the rules of their own game, sometimes to the point of becoming little more than propaganda organs of the government.

Of course, that's partly because amid war (at least, amid a popular war, such as World War II) many of their readers and viewers want them to behave that way. But that's kind of my point: If the frequency of mass killings reaches a point where it is perceived as a true national crisis, there will be growing pressure to do something about it, and lots of people may agree that punishing killers with obscurity (in the literal sense of not showing their faces, at least) is one thing that should be done about it. It could even get to a point where the self-censorship actually makes sense in business terms--where the New York Times is considered, in a sense, patriotic for eschewing images of mass killers, and is rewarded for this by readers.

Which leads to my second point: Gould suggests that media be shamed into self-censorship, both by credentialed critics who appear on mass media and, via social media, by lay critics as well. I absolutely agree. I would just say that I don't see this shaming as an alternative to my proposal but rather as a complement to it. In general, the shaming of norm violators is one of the mechanisms by which a norm is strengthened and upheld. But that doesn't mean the norm can't first be planted by a few elite media institutions that take the initiative.

It's kind of a chicken and egg question: Which will happen first--the eschewing by some media outlets of images of accused mass killers, or the shaming of media outlets that fail to exercise that self-censorship? I'm indifferent, so long as both wind up gaining momentum. The problem of mass killings may not yet be seen as serious enough for that to happen, but that doesn't mean it can't happen or won't happen.

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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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