Blaming the Media

For the umpteenth time, I’ve heard the easy equation of violence and videogames today, in the context of “something needs to be done.” People who study media know how difficult it is to “prove” effects with any certainty — the majority of kids who play videogames aren’t violent (and murder rates in the US have been steadily decreasing while videogame use has been increasing), obesity is caused by a bit more than watching television, and kids did stupid, dangerous things long before Beavis and Butthead first aired. That’s a long way of saying that causes and effects are complicated and while it’s easy to latch onto the usual cast of causes, it’s not always that simple.

There is one media effect that’s considered a pretty sure bet — and that’s the suicide spike that happens after occurs after media coverage of a suicide. That is, media coverage is a risk factor for those considering suicide and many media outlets have adopted policies to govern their coverage (see Annenberg’s recommendations). The New Yorker had an interesting and relevant piece about suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, that touches on similar issues.

I couldn’t help but think about this during Sunday’s bit on CNN that discussed the role of media in every possible way but this one. Let’s leave aside for a moment the ethics of pursuing interviews with grieving parents (Soledad O’Brien punted this one, trying to argue that it was necessary to do these “difficult” interviews to provide public information but never saying what possible information these poor sad people could provide about their murdered babies).

Instead, let’s talk about the ethics of a media cycle that creates and sustains attention to these mass shooting/suicides — that is constantly redirecting our attention back to the enigma of the perp, rehearsing every detail of his life, giving him the notoriety he sought, even if it came posthumously. If coverage of suicides encourage suicides, and news outlets treat these carefully as a result, then why are they ignoring this very basic and well-established fact?

It’s an obvious answer, of course, and has everything to do with dwindling television viewership and ratings. From the beginning of the commercial press, the news stoked and fed a voracious appetite for crime coverage — the more dramatic and awful, the better. Broadcast news followed in this well-worn tradition.

Rarely has crime news had anything to do public safety or social responsibility. Years ago, a television station in Texas adopted community standards for crime coverage to govern their coverage of crime and accidental death. I’ve always found these instructive, although I’m going to have to track down the article. Essentially, what their standards boiled down to were questions like this:

  • Is the perpetrator still at large? Would information about the crime help the perpetrator be apprehended?
  • Would information about the crime help potential victims avoid being victimized?
  • In the case of accidental death, would coverage allow the public to take safety measures that might prevent future deaths?

I still think these are great guidelines, but in the case of the mass shooting in Newtown, there are additional questions that need to be asked. Does incessant media attention to mass shootings and suicides like these encourage copycat crimes? What role do media play in creating the conditions of notoriety that drive these crimes?

Let’s not let the mainstream media carry on about the important role they’re playing in helping us “heal” from this tragedy — a self-perpetuating myth that may well create the conditions — along with that obscenely American worship of guns — for crimes like this to happen again.

 

 

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