The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders. Here's How.

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After a wave of teen suicides in the 1980s, news outlets began reporting on these deaths more cautiously. Similar guidelines could help prevent more shooting sprees.

sandy-hook-graphic3.jpgAfter the Newtown shootings, newspapers printed detailed information about the killer and his methods. (McClatchy Papers)

You might not have noticed, but the mass media rarely reports on suicides, particularly teen suicides. When it does, the coverage is careful, understated, and dampened. This is no accident: Following guidelines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Mental Health, the media carefully and voluntarily avoids sensationalizing such deaths especially among teenagers. They almost never make the news unless the person is a public figure; methods of suicide are rarely mentioned; suicide pacts are not reported upon.

This is for good reason: Suicide, especially among teens, is contagious. It's a morbidly attractive idea that offers an established path of action for a troubled youngster. And we know from research in many fields that establishing a path of action -- a complete narrative in which you can visualize your steps and their effects -- is important in enabling follow-through.

This, for example, is exactly why political campaigns ask people about where and how they plan to vote -- imagined events are more likely to be carried out in real life. If you have a full story in your head, you are more likely to enact it, step by step. We also know such "contagion" effects are especially strong in adolescence and young adulthood -- an especially turbulent time for mental health.

In the Middle Ages, psychosis may have involved visions of the devil. Today, it can involve dressing in pseudo-combat gear and walking through a public place in a blaze of violence.

As a sociologist, I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing, and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter -- as well as the detailed and sensationalist reporting of the killer's steps just before and during the shootings -- may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects similar to those found in teen and other suicides.

Indeed, the rate of mass public shootings in the United States has been accelerating. In 2012 alone, there were at least a dozen of them. Seven dead at an Oakland college in April. Five killed at a Seattle coffee shop in May. Twelve killed in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July. Six murdered at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August, and six more killed in Minneapolis in September. Three dead in the Milwaukee spa shootings in October. And most recently, and unimaginably, 20 children as young as six, along with six adults, murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The trend is disturbingly clear.

As many have pointed out, these mass public rampages are inextricably linked with the availability of high-capacity guns and ammunition, as well as with lack of strong mental health infrastructure -- especially for those in late adolescence and early adulthood, the typical onset period for major psychotic disorder.

But it's also important to recognize that while mental illness plagues every society, the ways people express it are heavily influenced by the norms, heroes, anti-heroes, and spectacles of their own places and times. In the Middle Ages, psychosis may have involved visions of the devil, snakes, or witches. In the 21st century, it can involve dressing in pseudo-combat gear, donning numerous high-powered rifles, and walking through a public place in a blaze of violence. The shock value is part of the goal -- and the higher the shock value, predictably, the higher the ensuing media coverage, which fuels interest in the shooter and creates a whirlwind of attention and spectacle.

My aim here is not to blame the media: such events have undeniable news value, and there is intense public interest in uncovering their details. But it's important to recognize that such incidents are not mono-causal, and sensational news coverage is, increasingly, part of the mix of events that contributes to these rampages.

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Zeynep Tufekci is a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, an assistant professor at the School of Information and Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She writes regularly at her personal site, Technosociology.

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