In the wake of one of the most shocking mass murders of my life, and the second one in just a few short months, the new stations all over the country are running non stop coverage of Newton, CT and releasing news about Adam Lanza, the killer, every time a minuscule amount of anything is revealed about him. Just some facts I learned about him this morning: he was home schooled after 10th grade and before that he was in the Tech Club. Now I know that this a tragedy, especially where the families of the victims are concerned, but this constant and undiluted coverage of the Sandy Hook tragedy is actually hurting more than its helping.
As it turns out, giving a murderer weeks of publicity on television, in papers, and in popular magazines - let's not even kid ourselves Time is bound to do an article on this - is actually a bad thing, because then he turns into this person of infamy, a celebrity for all the wrong reasons, and someone out there will want to be just like that. According to Forensic Psychologist Dr. Park Dietz mass coverage of murders is exactly what's propagating them. "Because every time we have intense, saturated coverage of a murder, we expect to see on or two more within a week."
For proof of Dr. Dietz's statement look to the case of Joseph Wesbecker and Patrick Purdy. In 1989 Purdy received prolonged attention after he firebombed his car, killed five elementary school children, wounded 29 more along with a teacher with an AKS and then killed himself with a 9 mm gun. Originally the story didn't get much coverage. But as time went on, the story got bigger and bigger, and pointed out the similarities between this murder and several others.
In September of the same year Wesbecker, a recently released mental patient, armed with the same weapons as Purdy walked into Standard Gravure Co., killed eight people and wounded 13. Upon investigation of Wesbecker's belongings clippings of the articles about Purdy were found, along with other articles about mass murders. Wesbecker's entire plan that day was based off of the crime that Purdy had committed 8 months beforehand. The media's coverage of Purdy had created a copy-cat killer.
The media can actually be credited with creating copycat killers all the way back in the early 1900's. Jack the Ripper was running around killing people and becoming infamous for it. During that time, all the media coverage of his crimes created a string of people who imitated Jack - only they usually got caught. There was a more recent copycat of Jack the Ripper, also. Fortunately he was caught.
The same thing happened during the time when the Zodiac Killer was in his/her heyday. So much attention was given the case that 20 years later Eddie Seda decided to use him/her as inspiration and was arrested after being found guilty of Zodiac style murders.
And then in the 90's a string of school shootings all eerily similar to each other spanned the country. In fact, between 1983 and 2008 50 shootings have occurred inside schools, all with similarities to each other, including the Columbine Massacre, an incident that was mostly played out on television which raised the question: would a televised mass murder contribute to copy cat killings? I think we have our answer.
After the Virginia Tech shootings and the weeks long coverage of the event and specials on the killer, Northern Illinois University canceled classes after a threat referencing Virginia Tech was found in a bathroom stall, BU and University of Cincinnati students were arrested for threatening to wreak such havoc that VT would be "pale in comparison." Why? Because the killer, and the event (which is currently ranked as the deadliest shooting in the United States) went down in infamy. And infamy still warrants mass amounts of attention. If the event had been localized and not given hours of coverage by the News, it is likely that this wouldn't have happened. In fact, associate professor of psychology Danny Axsom noted that the greater the amount of publicity a particularly criminal act receives, the greater the potential is for copycat versions of the same event to occur.
Even Adam Lanza's crime has signs of a copycat murder. In my mind, Lanza, Purdy, and every other school shooter have pretty similar crimes, all happening in schools with assault weapons, and ending in their eventual suicides. And why? Why? Because the news can't find anything better to talk on. Useless footage of killers doing sports or menial day to day activities suddenly hold the marks of a murderer. But then their every move is plastered across the news screens for everyone to see, those who can watch it and feel sorry for the people involved and those who want the same amount of infamy and decide to recreate the crime somehow.
Eventually the names of the victims are forgotten. But the killers, who go down in infamy, become immortal. Lizzie Bordon, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, The Zodiac Killer, The Green River Killer, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, those are names people remember. Because the media made a huge deal out of them, and while the victims names were once mentioned, more is made of the killer than the victims because how could someone do something so terrible?
Well they probably got their ideas watching the news.